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College Move-In Was Supposed To Mark A Return To Normal. Then Came The Delta Variant

Workers help students move in to Selleck Hall, at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Workers help students move in to Selleck Hall, at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Rental trucks in the parking lots; joyful hugs as students find old friends; a crowd in the campus store as families stock up on Husker gear: It's move-in week at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The center of the action here is the Devaney Center. It's usually home to track and field, but this week it's where students and their families are shuffling in to get their room keys, maps of campus, move-in directions, a mandatory COVID-19 test — and this year — a booth where they can get a vaccine shot.

Phoebe Feis, a junior, skips that table because she's already vaccinated. It's a major reason, she says, for why she's back on campus this year. As a sophomore last year, she spent the academic year at home in northwest Iowa, taking classes online and making sure to protect her grandmother, who is a cancer survivor in her 80s.

Ariana Huey, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, takes a saliva-based COVID-19 test upon arrival on campus.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
Ariana Huey, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, takes a saliva-based COVID-19 test upon arrival on campus.

"Everyone I know has been vaccinated," says Feis, who in her third year of college has only one full, in-person semester under her belt due to the pandemic. "With [the vaccines] and other safety protocols, I feel really safe coming back."

This sprawling university of about 20,000 undergraduates, nestled in the Great Plains, was hoping — like many colleges — for a normal fall semester. But as millions of college students descend on campuses throughout the U.S., the delta variant is raging, raising questions about how to pull this off without outbreaks.

Public health experts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and officials at about 700 colleges and universities, say the best way to do that is to have their campuses fully vaccinated. But only about a quarter of colleges have instituted a vaccine mandate, according to the College Crisis Initiative, though many more may enact one once the Food and Drug Administration issues a full approval of a vaccine, which is expected as early as September. Nearly 50% of colleges are encouraging or incentivizing students to get vaccinated, through outreach to students, campus vaccine clinics and prizes, including, in places like Purdue University, free tuition.

Mask mandates have also made their way back to some campuses. In some cases, those campus mask requirements have been met with political pushback and legal challenges.

In the midst of all this turmoil and uncertainty, campus leaders are being forced to re-imagine an in-person start, at places like California State University, Stanislaus, and the University of Texas, San Antonio.

But here in Lincoln, it's full steam ahead for the fall semester. The university has so far steered clear of requiring the vaccine, instead making it voluntary for students to report their vaccination status. The university did offer a number of prizes to students who uploaded their vaccine card, including the possibility of winning a smart watch or a monthly massage. Students who don't upload their CDC card will be required to take weekly COVID-19 tests.

Phoebe Fies, a junior, and her mom Dixee Bartholomew-Feis, turn in her COVID-19 test during move-in week at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
Phoebe Fies, a junior, and her mom Dixee Bartholomew-Feis, turn in her COVID-19 test during move-in week at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"A high level of vaccination," explains Amy Goodburn, who works in the university's administration and co-chairs the school's COVID-19 taskforce, "is really critical to having an in-person experience."

The university hasn't released data on how many students are vaccinated, and Goodburn says it won't start talks about a requirement until the FDA gives the vaccine full approval. The campus is encouraging masks for unvaccinated people, but it isn't mandatory. Goodburn says they're following the county's guidance on that. Still, she feels confident in the school's protocol, pointing to the fact the campus was open last year, with dorms at full capacity. Like many universities, UNL did not see the virus spread in the classroom.

This fall, she says, "I feel a lot more optimism and excitement, whereas last fall it was pretty much dread in the pit of my stomach every day, like, 'Oh, what's going to happen here?' " There are different circumstances compared with a year ago: classes are back at full capacity and masks are not required for most classes. Students — and professors — won't know who is, and who is not, vaccinated.

Excitement tinged with worry about outbreaks

It's been frustrating for some public health experts to see campuses that are not requiring the vaccine. "Vaccination is the #1 defense against campus outbreaks," says David Paltiel, a professor who studies public health at Yale University. "Any college that doesn't enforce a vaccination mandate is being derelict in its duty to the safety of its students, staff, and community."

And Paltiel points out that the delta variant is even more contagious than the strain campuses dealt with last year. "I think we need to be preparing to expect a greater frequency and magnitude of outbreaks than we did last year," he says.

And then, Paltiel adds, even with vaccine mandates, breakthrough cases will happen. At Duke University in North Carolina, where students and faculty must show proof of vaccination in order to begin classes on campus next week, the school found 100 positive cases, mostly among the vaccinated. That number came from testing about 8,000 individuals.

"Breakthrough cases are going to take place," says Paltiel, "I don't think that our campus leaders have really internalized that fact."

Kitana Bernth, a first-year student, moves into her dorm with help from her mom. Kitana is vaccinated, but she hasn't asked her roommate if she is yet. "If she chooses to get one, I don't really care. It's honestly her decision."
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
Kitana Bernth, a first-year student, moves into her dorm with help from her mom. Kitana is vaccinated, but she hasn't asked her roommate if she is yet. "If she chooses to get one, I don't really care. It's honestly her decision."

A report from the University of Texas at Austin, which modeled different scenarios this fall, estimates that about 200 students — of the school's 50,000 — will arrive on campus infected with COVID-19. The report anticipated that 57% of students would be vaccinated when the fall semester begins, and predicts that without frequent testing or if students do not wear masks indoors, an average of 11,200 students could become infected with COVID-19 this fall.

Paltiel's new research also suggests that not testing unvaccinated students would be detrimental to campuses' handling of the virus, especially given that other precautions, such as reducing the density of students in classrooms, wearing masks, and banning large gatherings, have been lifted. "Without either testing or distancing policies, a return to pre-COVID campus life and activities could result in the infection of virtually all unvaccinated members of the population before the end of the semester," the report states.

Some of that anxiety is swirling here in Lincoln.

"It's a little scary, because of Delta," says Maria Huey, who is here to move her daughter Ariana, a sophomore, into campus for the first time. Ariana attended college from home in San Antonio last year, and though mom and daughter are both vaccinated and wearing masks, there's still some hesitancy at being on a big campus with so many other people.

"Walking around here, there's not many people with masks and that's pretty scary for me," Huey says. "Back home, everybody wears masks ... So, yeah, we've had to be even more careful."

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