Millions of students are heading back to college for their third full academic year since the COVID pandemic hit. But as students move into their dorms and sign up for classes this year, things are different.
On many campuses, the masking restrictions are gone. Classes are being held in-person, testing requirements are loosening, and quarantine and isolation dorms have been returned to regular housing. College officials say the goal of easing these restrictions is to try and get students back to a more typical college experience.
"I don't think we can just forget about COVID at all," says Lisa Pearlman, the director of student health services at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts. "But I do think we can kind of live with COVID for the first time and still do all of the other normal things. And that feels really different about this year than the past two,"
While the average number of cases every day in the U.S. has been above 100,000 for the last several weeks, it has slowly decreased heading into fall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitalizations and deaths are far lower than they've been in other phases of the pandemic and are currently declining.
At WPI, where Pearlman works, they have discontinued weekly surveillance testing and shifted to providing rapid tests only for those experiencing symptoms or who have been exposed to COVID-19. Masks are no longer required on campus (apart from health care settings) and most students will now need to arrange their own isolation and quarantine space.
"We're really trying to kind of empower our community to make decisions on their own, to get the help and support that they need," Pearlman says. "We're not going to, like, micromanage what everybody's doing in the same way that we have been for the past 2 1/2 years."
This shift follows new CDC guidance released in August that puts more focus on how individuals should go about making their own decisions about risk and what precautions they make to reduce that risk.
Students move in, prepared for a different kind of college experience
Outside Grace & Broad, a residence hall at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, students and families are moving in for the fall semester.
Some COVID precautions are still in place, including limits on the number of people who can help move students in. But there's also a sense of things getting back to normal. One welcome change from the COVID-times: The large cardboard boxes on wheels have returned, so students can pile several of their own boxes in and make far fewer trips.
"This year is already way easier than last year because of COVID stuff," explains junior Jenna Curia, who is helping her boyfriend, Donovan Green, also a junior, move into the dorm.
They're both vaccinated, and though the school is not requiring vaccines this fall, they feel "much safer" than in previous semesters. "The first year, when things were really serious, I didn't go out whatsoever," explains Green.
Last year, he went to a few parties — but mostly with students he already knew. "Because of COVID the rules were a lot stricter on social stuff, like who you could bring in [to dorms]," he says, "but this year it is a lot looser." He still plans on playing it safe, since the virus is "still out there."
The biggest difference for Curia and Green is that most classes are now in-person. "I've only had one in-person class during my first two years of college," says Curia. "I'm fully in-person this semester, so I'm very excited."
Both students are looking forward to hanging out after class to talk with professors, and making friends with fellow students. They say their online classes made it harder to make friends and connect with others about what they were learning.
Even with fewer precautions, colleges should keep their guard up
The beginning of the semester, when there's a lot of student migration, is when cases tend to go up. While some smaller schools are still requiring students to get tested when they arrive, it has become far less common. Instead, universities are suggesting that students self-test before they move in or arrive on campus.
In many cases, testing and vaccination clinics will be available during move-in days and during the first few weeks of the semester, before phasing out.
"COVID is not quite as scary as it was three years ago. However, it is not gone," says Gerri Taylor, co-leader of the COVID Task Force for the American College Health Association. "So colleges really cannot be complacent at this point. They've got to watch numbers. They've got to watch trends on campus, trends in the local community, in their state, and be able to pivot very quickly."
While many of the COVID-19 dashboards tracking positive cases remain updated, many schools have dissolved, cut back, or renamed their COVID-19 task forces, which administrators formed to deal with the virus. Many of those groups have expanded to develop plans for monkeypox and other health concerns.
"These groups and task forces have been really successful and extremely valuable," says Taylor. "Campuses need to continue them because we don't know what's around the corner."
Campuses have the tools to deal with COVID, even if restrictions are eased
The two-plus years of dealing with the pandemic taught colleges a lot about the virus and what mitigation efforts work. A recent study demonstrated that campus vaccine mandates had a substantial effect on infection and death rates in nearby areas, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The research concludes that those mandates likely reduced total U.S. deaths from the virus by about 5% — or more than 7,300 lives — during the fall 2021 semester.
"It's just astronomical how much we have learned in the past two years," says Pearlman at WPI. That knowledge is lowering her level of stress this fall. "I feel really comfortable entering this year, and that is a new feeling for me. It's the first time I can say that."
Removing some of the COVID restrictions on social gatherings is also an important aspect of supporting students on campus, says Eileen Hineline, a registered nurse and the director of the student health center at Barry University in Miami.
"We're trying to get back to not being afraid to socialize," she says. "We've seen the increase in mental health issues from having so many of our students isolated. This is an important time in their lives that they absolutely need to have that social contact."
She says she's heartened by how much colleges have learned about COVID and by data showing that individuals who are vaccinated and skew younger — such as college students — are having mild cases.
"What is different right now than three years ago," Hineline says, "is that we understand the virus a lot more. We're dancing with the devil that we know. And we've definitely learned who this devil is and what we can do about it."
Megan Pauly, a reporter at Virginia Public Media, contributed to this story.