Elon University students, faculty and staff returned to campus for Winter Term amid rising cases of COVID-19. As the Omicron variant, a more highly transmissible strain of the virus, increases cases across the nation, some students are concerned about safety in the classroom and the lack of hybrid options.

“It’s just so hard being on campus around all these other people and not knowing what they’re doing,” sophomore Rachel Mullenix said. “It’s the university’s role, it’s their responsibility to keep up with us and I feel like they’re not doing that.”

Daily cases increase

Chair of the Healthy Elon Committee Jeff Stein said the university was prepared for the possibility of more cases on campus. Elon University had 87 total active cases among students and 54 among faculty and staff as of Jan. 9, according to the Healthy Elon COVID-19 dashboard. This compares to seven new cases on campus reported in the weekly Healthy Elon update of the semester, Dec. 8, 2021, just one month earlier. 

As news of waning immunity in vaccines and new variants emerged, Stein said the university stayed in contact with local and state health officials to prepare for Winter Term.

“This will be a challenging month, at the very least,” Stein said. “The way Omicron seems to spread, it would be natural for us to expect students to get infected, faculty to get infected and staff to get infected, and with class being so intense … that puts a lot of pressure on the students and faculty.” 

The university announced it will be following the new guidance put forth by the Centers for Disease Control — individuals who test positive but are asymptomatic will only have to isolate for five days, and they do not have to have a negative test result after that period. Previously, individuals had to quarantine for 10 days. 

Additionally, the CDC has determined that individuals who are exposed to COVID-19 and are not fully vaccinated should quarantine for five days, regardless of whether or not the individual has symptoms.

Stein said with tools gained in the last two years of the pandemic — vaccines, boosters, masks and increased ventilation in buildings across campus, for example — he hopes the university will not have to institute policies similar to last year, such as social hiatus. 

“There is going to be a surge of cases. It's happening all over the country,” Stein said. “Together we've managed to work through some of these, we just need to rely on each other. We need to use these tools that we have and take care of ourselves in particular, because it is stressful.”

But for students like Mullenix, Elon’s new guidelines feel like a step in the wrong direction. Mullenix said the absence of precautions such as weekly mandatory testing like what was on campus last spring, despite the increase in cases, makes her wonder if the university’s rules and mandates protect students well enough. 

“We don't have weekly testing, except for people who were unvaccinated, which is a very small minority of students, even though we know that there's a lot of COVID,” Mullenix said. “Obviously, something has changed. But if anything, they're reverting the rules to be less protective.”

Senior Amy Moore’s biggest concern is the asymptomatic spread of Omicron, especially among vaccinated individuals. Elon University requires all students to be fully vaccinated, including a booster shot to return to campus by Jan. 31. Moore said with the variant causing a higher rate of breakthrough cases in vaccinated individuals, she is worried. 

“There can be people who are completely healthy outwardly, but actually are carrying COVID,” Moore said. “I wish that we had more asymptomatic testing, but on the other hand, I don't know how effective that would be anyway. … It's kind of like a Catch-22 situation.”

Hybrid options

Mullenix said in addition to no longer having mandatory weekly testing, the lack of a hybrid option for her course and the amount of students in her Winter Term classroom are also of concern. 

While some professors have allowed students to attend class online throughout Winter Term, others do not, and according to Stein, this is by design. Professors have the ability to decide what method of instruction is best for their classrooms and students. 

“The faculty are ready to work with students,” Stein said. “We just all need to understand that every single faculty member in every discipline is a little bit different.”

Especially during Winter Term, Mullenix said she worries students who do not have a Zoom option will feel pressured to come to class, even if they feel sick to avoid missing material. Especially after hybrid classes were an option throughout the majority of last year, Mullenix said she questions why professors are allowed to not give students a Zoom option.

“We have the bandwidth to be able to let those students participate in class, and we're not doing it consistently,” Mullenix said. 

The attendance policy is on sophomore Danny Gutierrez’s mind for Winter Term and beyond, as the campus community copes with COVID-19, but also with other illnesses.

“If I feel sick, I shouldn't have to go to class, even if it's not COVID. What if I had strep? What if I had the flu? What if I had something contagious? And I couldn't stay home? What then?” Gutierrez said. “COVID is making it very hard for people who are sick with other things to get sick days.”

In previous years when students were unable to attend Winter Term classes due to illness, such as the flu, Stein said faculty worked with individual students as they’re doing now. In some cases, the student was able to remain in their class. In other cases, a student may have had to medically withdraw from the course.

Both Gutierrez and Mullenix said hybrid options are a tool they hope professors use during Winter Term and the spring semester to support students who are in quarantine, feel ill or are having mental health challenges.

“This is a matter of mental health and just taking care of your students. The fact that you are so unwilling for some reason to turn your computer on and send out a link really shows how much you care,” Gutierrez said. “If you can't do that for your students, I really don't know if you care about your students’ success.”

Looking ahead

As students navigate winter term, Stein said he hopes students, faculty and staff alike continue to take care of themselves, both by staying connected and involved in the community but also by wearing masks, keeping social circles smaller and getting the booster.

“This is also a time to remember that hopefully this is not forever. We are seeing this virus, even with the need for boosters, even with continued masking, we are seeing that we are moving towards a more endemic stage and hopefully that will come sooner than later,” Stein said.

Gutierrez said he hopes professors offer both hybrid options and more testing is offered on campus throughout winter term and heading into spring. But he also hopes as the university and the world transitions away from the policies from the onset of the pandemic, the empathy gained throughout the pandemic sticks around.

“There's no sympathy for anything. No empathy for anything. It's very unforgiving,” Gutierrez said. “It's a very unforgiving environment right now.”