Packs of new students roamed Boston College’s Chestnut Hill campus last Friday, going to orientation events and meeting with their advisers while upperclassmen moved back to campus.
“It felt pretty normal,” freshman Curtis Shimer said as he walked across the quad. “Personally, I’m for the relaxed measures.”
But the pandemic lingers: The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported 8,000 new cases and 38 deaths in the seven days ending Wednesday, raising concerns among some, especially immunocompromised students, that the relaxation of most pandemic measures is premature.
In the past two years, infection rates at colleges have generally tracked with the swings in the general population, except for eruptions in cases when students returned to campus after the summer or spring break. A recently published study found that college reopenings in fall 2020 increased coronavirus transmission by about 11,500 cases a day.
At BC, students are required to be vaccinated and boosted, and had to take a COVID-19 test 72 hours before arriving on campus. Once at school, anyone with symptoms can get tested at health services, and, if positive, will be asked to go home to isolate if they can or to “isolate in place” in the dorms.
“We’ve been trying to combine strategies to make our campus as normal as possible in the safest and healthiest way for all of our faculty, staff, and students,” said Dr. Douglas Comeau, the college’s director of health services.
Other schools are largely mirroring Boston College’s policies, with slight variations. Boston University requires masks on shuttle buses; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology doesn’t. Harvard University requires residential students to take a COVID test upon arrival on campus; Emerson College, by contrast, just encourages a test.
Almost all local colleges are implementing isolation in place, Meaning students who test positive isolate in their dorm rooms or off-campus housing for five days rather than in dedicated housing. But Tufts University has kept a limited amount of isolation housing for those at high risk. In most cases, roommates will keep living together when one is positive. Most of the time, if one roommate tests positive, the other one already has it, officials say.
While most colleges first relaxed mask policies last spring, Boston College has been mask optional since last fall. The college did not see significant spread of infections among students in classrooms, and other campuses that have recently adopted the policy should not be too worried, Comeau said.
“My hope and a lot of my medical colleagues’ hope is that we can continue this transition from a pandemic to a hopeful endemic” scenario, Comeau said.
Almost all colleges and universities are now trying to live with COVID rather than eliminate spread entirely, according to Chris Marsicano, a professor at Davidson College who’s been tracking the coronavirus response in higher education since the pandemic began.
“The situation on the ground changed and colleges changed their approach,” he said. Vaccinations and a better understanding of the virus combined with the high cost of measures like surveillance testing and isolation housing prompted the change, he said.
“This sort of new normal of testing availability and vaccine requirements, occasional masking when needed is probably where we’re going to be for the foreseeable future,” Marsicano said.
Students are feeling the difference. Boston College sophomore Temidayo Lakan said the campus seems more active than last year, and he’s glad most of the restrictions have been lifted.
But Lakan admitted to being a little concerned about the isolation protocols. Students who test positive will now isolate in their dorm rooms and BC’s policy requires them to follow social distancing and masking precautions.
“It’s just a little too trusting on the individual,” Lakan said.
The Boston area is currently in a “long tail of a wave,” and cases remain relatively high compared to previous low points, according to Dr. Davidson Hamer, a Boston University infectious disease specialist. Meanwhile, more studies have shown that policies campuses implemented over the past two years were effective, he said.
“We’re in a better place that we were last year,” Hamer said. But, “I am honestly concerned about what might happen this fall.”
A major problem, Hamer said, is that without surveillance testing and contact tracing, colleges will be slower to respond to outbreaks.
That possibility has Northeastern University sophomores Alexa Rand and Emma Albert worried.
Both are immunocompromised. Rand was born with a congenital heart defect and is preparing for a surgery to address problems with her mitral valve; her doctors have warned her that getting sick this semester could land her in the hospital. Albert has a venous malformation in her left leg for which she takes an oral chemotherapy treatment.
“The social distancing works. The masks work. They were effective,” Rand said. “To see it come to an end is a little distressing to say the least, but we make do.”
Rand and Albert, who are members of the school’s disability advocacy club, wish that Northeastern had at least maintained mask mandates in classrooms, optional surveillance testing, and the virtual class option.
Albert recalled sitting in a 400-person lecture last spring after the mask mandate lifted.
“They had this privilege of being able to move on and kind of act like COVID’s over, but it’s not,” Albert said. “I don’t have the privilege of moving on like everyone else.”
Some schools remain more cautious.
Bunker Hill Community College is among the few local higher education institutions to link its mask policy to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s community transmission level. If that moves to “high,” the school will reimpose its mask mandate.
“It was common sense to us,” said Brendan Hughes, Bunker Hill’s director of public relations.
Many of the school’s 16,000 students are from groups hardest hit by the pandemic, such as older students and Black and Hispanic students.
“That blanket statement … of ‘because they’re college students means they’re low risk,’ doesn’t necessarily apply to us,” Hughes said.
Wellesley College is the only local school to maintain opt-in weekly surveillance testing and a classroom mask mandate that professors can decide to waive.
“Everything is a balancing of protecting health and safety and having a normal experience,” said Karen Petrulakis, Wellesley’s general counsel, who also leads the school’s health and safety committee.
Alexander Thompson was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow him on Twitter. @AlMThompson