Students can expect to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their peers at football games and walk around the Academic Spine maskless this fall, but a recent surge in COVID-19 cases may leave administrators weighing additional health and safety measures this semester.
UB administrators have already been forced to grapple with the highly contagious Delta variant. In an early August policy reversal, the school announced that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, will be required to wear masks indoors.
SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras said in April that he had no plans to require students to be vaccinated for COVID-19, but he reversed course in response to rising infection rates. More than 27,000 students are fully vaccinated for the virus, the university announced Monday.
Erie County has experienced “substantial COVID-19 transmission” in recent weeks, according to public health experts. Many students are divided on how to tackle this recent uptick, with some advocating for more restrictive health and safety measures and others asking for a return to pre-pandemic normalcy.
Roughly 83% of classes are being offered in person or have an in-person component this semester, according to the Office of the Registrar, compared with 17% of classes that are being offered remotely. Students will also repopulate on-campus dorms and apartments and off-campus apartments.
“We are excited to welcome back to campus our students and our faculty and staff who have been working from home,” President Satish Tripathi said in July. “And, as we return to a much more normal campus experience, the health and safety of our university community continues to be our highest priority, and we remain ready to adjust our plans accordingly.”
Vaccinations required, with limited exemptions
The Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine Monday, which will enable vaccine mandates — like the one UB announced this summer — to be implemented this fall.
University officials announced Aug. 16 that students receiving a two-dose COVID-19 series will be required to get the first dose by the first day of classes, on Aug. 30. Those students will be required to complete their series within five weeks of the FDA’s announcement, or by Sept. 27. Students taking a one-dose vaccine have until Monday to fulfill their requirement. Students who fail to do so “will be immediately resigned from all [in-person] courses,” UB says on its website.
Students will be held financially liable if they are forced to resign courses due to non-compliance with the university’s COVID-19 policies, UB says. Students who get vaccinated after being resigned from their fall in-person courses will be permitted to re-enroll for the spring semester.
All students are required to be fully vaccinated to attend in-person classes in the fall, with limited exemptions for medical or religious reasons. UB reported Monday that 27,140 students are fully vaccinated ahead of the fall semester, a clip that far exceeds local and national trends.
Two other COVID-19 vaccines — Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen — are currently authorized for emergency use. Students who are granted a medical or religious exemption will be required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test upon return to campus and undergo weekly surveillance testing.
Some international students may have faced hardships in obtaining a vaccine in their home countries, as some regions have yet to open up vaccines to 18-25 year olds or only offer vaccines that aren’t approved by the World Health Organization.
UB encouraged those students to complete their vaccine series in the U.S., through South Campus’ Harriman Hall vaccination site or by making an appointment at a local retail pharmacy.
“We’re very pleased with our students’ response to the vaccine requirement thus far and we anticipate the number of students who are vaccinated to continue to grow steadily leading up to the fall semester,” Vice President for Student Life Brian Hamluk said in July.
Residential students who test positive for COVID-19 or who are a close contact of someone who has tested positive will be required to isolate or quarantine in designated residence halls, the university says. These students will be provided with WiFi, remote learning resources, food and care while they are in quarantine.
Off-campus students will be advised to quarantine or isolate at their place of residence, the university says. Infected employees are also advised to stay home and quarantine.
Masks required indoors
Students, faculty and staff — regardless of vaccination status — will be required to wear face masks inside all campus buildings this fall. The list of venues includes classrooms, libraries, hallways and other common spaces.
Masks will not be required in personal rooms at residence halls, within personal offices or in non-public-facing personal workstations, according to Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs A. Scott Weber and Vice President for Health Services Michael Cain.
Vaccinated students and employees will not be required to wear face masks outdoors on campus; unvaccinated students will be. All students — regardless of vaccination status — will be required to wear masks at large outdoor gatherings, like football games.
UB’s new guidelines, announced in early August, represent a change from previous guidance stating indoor mask wearing would be optional for fully vaccinated individuals. Social distancing will not be required of vaccinated or unvaccinated individuals indoors or outdoors.
The Delta variant, or B.1.617.2, is now responsible for at least 93% of all new sequenced COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the CDC. An internal CDC slideshow from early August stated that the Delta variant is as transmissible as chickenpox and more infectious than the common cold, seasonal flu and smallpox.
That slide presentation said vaccines reduce the risk of severe disease and death by at least 10-fold and the risk of infection by three-fold. But increasing reports of breakthrough infections have raised concern among health experts and some members of the public.
“High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raise concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with Delta can transmit the virus,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. “This finding is concerning and was a pivotal discovery leading to CDC’s updated mask recommendations.”
Despite the relatively new vaccination and indoor masking policies, students will return to a “more normal” campus in the fall, according to the university.
Students won’t have to maintain physical distancing indoors or outdoors, according to the school’s health and safety guidelines. Large outdoor events, like football games and other fall sports competitions, will be held at full capacity. UB’s two major recreation facilities, Alumni Arena and Clark Hall, will expand their hours of operation at the start of the semester.
Classes will be given from crowded lecture halls, the dorms will be bustling with new students (who, under a new policy, will be allowed to enter other residence halls and apartments) and clubs will be operating under enhanced safety guidelines.
But perhaps the biggest change from the semester before is the sheer number of students expected to be on campus in the fall. UB says more than 27,000 students have already uploaded proof of full vaccination ahead of the upcoming semester.
For the first time since March 2020, the Student Union and Academic Spine — not to mention countless other locations on the school’s three campuses — should be brimming with life as students return to the Queen City for what is sure to be an especially memorable semester.
Dan Eastman contributed to the reporting.
Justin Weiss is the managing editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Justin Weiss is the The Spectrum's managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things at his TV when his sports teams aren't winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald. He can be found on Twitter @Jwmlb1.