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College students are starting spring semester. Here's what it looks like with omicron

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week marks the start of spring semester for a lot of colleges, and a number of schools have announced delays or virtual classes as omicron continues to surge across the country. Michigan State, for example, will be virtual for at least the first three weeks. Several of the California State universities here are doing the same. But many more campuses are welcoming students back and beginning in-person classes.

NPR's higher education correspondent Elissa Nadworny joins us now with more. Hey, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: So can you just describe for us, what is college life like right now with omicron?

NADWORNY: Well, for the most part, students are in-person much like the fall but with more booster shots required, more masking. And even though we've seen a number of those headlines about delays and switching to virtual, new data from the College Crisis Initiative based at Davidson College in North Carolina shows the vast majority are starting on time, in-person. Their data show just 12% of colleges are beginning this semester online. Compare that to a year ago, pre-vaccines, about 40% of colleges were online.

CHANG: Wow. OK, so quite a difference still. But for the colleges that are open and in-person at the moment at least, what does campus life look like?

NADWORNY: Well, it's going to vary across the country. So take Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. There's weekly testing. The booster is now required. Most social activities are online. But even with all that, senior Sophia Kriz says she's worried high numbers of positive cases could shut it all down.

SOPHIA KRIZ: It sort of feels like we're in, like, a state of limbo if anything where, like, yeah, classes are in-person, we're all on campus, but, you know, we're all just sort of waiting to hear, you know, how things are going as far as cases and stuff like that.

NADWORNY: I talked with a number of students who share Sophia's anxiety. Everybody seems to know somebody on campus with COVID.

Aisha Ghorashian is a senior at the University of Oregon. She got tested positive last week. She's now out of isolation but says campus just doesn't feel normal.

AISHA GHORASHIAN: You feel the stress on campus. People, I think, don't feel as safe because you see that double-masking and you see those N95s that I've never seen people wear before.

CHANG: I can imagine. Well, it sounds like, yeah, we're going to see a lot of positive cases as students head back to school. So what happens then?

NADWORNY: Well we've got to remember that colleges are some of the most vaccinated spaces in America. So the worry isn't so much hospitalization and death, but it's more capacity and limiting spread. So colleges are seeing more cases now than ever before, and that has put a real strain on resources because you've got to isolate students, do contact tracing. You need physical space to house those students. You need staff to facilitate it.

Gerri Taylor co-leads the COVID Task Force for the American College Health Association. Her job is to work with health directors on campus.

GERRI TAYLOR: It is at a crisis. In fact, one of the directors yesterday said to me, we have never, through even this entire pandemic, been in a situation as difficult as this one right now in January of 2022.

NADWORNY: So colleges are using hotels to house students who test positive. One school - California Polytechnic State University - offered students who test positive a $400 gift card to the campus store if they move home to isolate so they get off campus.

CHANG: (Laughter) Oh, my goodness. Wait, so - I mean, if we're seeing this kind of strain, this kind of stress with so many positive cases, why are colleges so averse to going remote?

NADWORNY: Well, first, we know from the pre-vaccine times that colleges can limit spread in classrooms through masks and distancing. And second, students want to be in-person. And we are in an enrollment crisis right now. New data from the National Student Clearinghouse out today show that more than 1 million fewer students are missing from college. They're not going.

Here's Doug Shapiro who leads the Clearinghouse Research Center.

DOUG SHAPIRO: It suggests what could be the beginning of a whole generation of students rethinking the value of college itself. And I think if that were the case, you know, this is much more serious than just a temporary pandemic-related disruption.

NADWORNY: And of course, omicron is not helping things, so that's the situation that we're in right now.

CHANG: That is NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Thank you, Elissa.

NADWORNY: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.