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COVID-19 in higher education: How Stanford’s Omicron response stacks up against peer institutions

Dec. 19, 2021, 6:56 p.m.

The Omicron variant has catalyzed a COVID-19 resurgence across higher-education institutions, with thousands of cases emerging on college campuses across the country in recent days. The soaring case counts have prompted Stanford and its peer institutions to implement precautions to ensure the health and safety of their campus communities. Stanford announced on Thursday that the first two weeks of winter quarter instruction will be held online, and booster shots will be required for eligible students by the end of January.

But how has Stanford’s response to rising cases and the Omicron variant compared to other colleges and universities? The Daily examined five peer institutions — the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Cornell — to compare recent COVID-19 case rates and differences in health policies implemented by each college.

With all six colleges returning to in-person instruction this year, they each implemented varying COVID-19 testing protocols and activity restrictions. As cases once again rise nationwide, each university’s policies are being put to the test, and their proposals for instruction after winter break are being scrutinized. Here is how each university is handling COVID-19 on campus.

Stanford

Stanford had a relatively stable number of cases throughout fall quarter, with small spikes during the late-September move-in period and return from Thanksgiving break. The University mandated that all students be vaccinated except for students with approved religious and medical exemptions. Vaccinated students were subject to weekly testing, while unvaccinated students had to test twice weekly. Fall quarter began with a restricted activity period, but limits on gatherings and events were lifted as the quarter progressed.

Amid rising case counts, Stanford officials announced on Thursday that the first two weeks of winter course instruction will be delivered entirely online and that booster shots will be required for eligible students by the end of January. During the weeks of Nov. 29 and Dec. 6, Stanford reported 30 and 27 student cases, respectively.

Cornell

Cornell had by far the highest total number of cases among the six universities. Most recently, a spike of 872 new cases reported on Dec. 13, pushed Cornell to alert-level red. Before the recent spike, Cornell implemented moderate COVID-19 policies during fall quarter: vaccinated students did not have to wear masks outdoors or practice social distancing.

After the recent outbreak, Cornell announced a number of immediate measures, such as moving all final exams to an online format, closing libraries and fitness centers and canceling most on-campus events. Last week, Cornell reported 1,282 active student cases — a positivity rate of 7.39% for the week. Though Cornell has clearly outpaced the other five colleges in positive cases, its plans for winter quarter remain unchanged as of this publication. The university is still not requiring its community members to receive a vaccine booster and has not made any announcements about changing its plans for spring semester.

University of California, Berkeley 

UC Berkeley did not experience rapid fluctuations in cases during the school year, as the number of students testing positive remained relatively stable. Similar to the five other schools, UC Berkeley experienced a surge in cases at the start of the quarter, recording 84 positive cases on Aug. 30, compared to 28 cases on Aug. 18, which marked the start of fall semester. The higher case counts at UC Berkeley could be the result of less stringent COVID-19 testing requirements in contrast to the other schools. For vaccinated students, faculty and staff members, surveillance testing is not required for 180 days from the date they are fully vaccinated, and after that, they need to test only monthly.

Despite the threat that the Omicron variant may pose, UC Berkeley on Dec. 16 reaffirmed its plans to move forward with fully in-person classes for spring semester.

Princeton

The number of student positive cases on Princeton’s campus was relatively low and stable during the school’s fall term. Although there was a spike of 84 new cases during the week of Nov. 29, the number of positive tests dropped in the next few weeks. During its fall term, Princeton implemented relatively relaxed policies, where unvaccinated students weren’t required to practice social distancing. Princeton announced on Dec. 16 that it will move all final exams online as a precaution. The winter quarter will still be in-person, but the university mandated booster shots for its students in the upcoming spring term.

Harvard

Harvard has experienced relatively low case case counts throughout the beginning of the academic year except for two major surges. On Sept. 30, the University reported a spike of 135 new COVID-19 cases. The latest breakout came amid soaring cases nationwide and new worries about the Omicron variant — on Dec. 6 Harvard reported 138 new cases.

After operating in-person throughout the current academic year, Harvard announced on Saturday that it would be moving to remote operations for the first three weeks of January. Students are not scheduled to return to campus until the beginning of their spring semester on Jan. 24, after the pause is slated to expire. The announcement came just days after the University mandated booster shots for students returning to campus.

Yale

After recording its largest single-day COVID-19 positive case count, Yale officials moved all remaining final exams online and urged students to take essential items home with them. While spring semester courses will begin on Jan. 18 in person, the school’s administrators have not ruled out starting the semester with online instruction. Yale also announced that it would mandate a booster for all eligible students before the start of spring semester, and said it expects faculty and staff to receive the booster as soon as they are eligible.

At the start of the fall semester, the university did not require vaccinated undergraduate students living on campus to quarantine upon arrival, and it maintained a weekly testing requirement throughout the semester. Yale experienced the second-largest spike in COVID-19 on campus among the six institutions since the Omicron variant began to spread, with the school recording more than 200 positive cases in the beginning of December.

Tiffany Gan is a high school reporter in The Stanford Daily Winter Journalism Workshop.

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