Students return to US campuses as colleges mandate tests, vaccines

(Clockwise from left) University of California, Berkeley, student Joellene Yap, Carnegie Mellon University student Yang Gan and Johns Hopkins University student Emma Giron. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF JOELLENE YAP, YANG GAN, EMMA GIRON

WASHINGTON - As United States college students stream back into campuses to start their autumn semester, there are the familiar rituals of moving in: from hauling suitcases stuffed with clothes, mini fridges and other creature comforts to dorm rooms and hugging friends hello and parents goodbye.

Less familiar are the mandatory face masks and regular Covid-19 tests that students must now undergo to stay on campus.

Across the country, students and faculty members must navigate the realities of returning to campuses amid the coronavirus pandemic's latest surge, driven by the Delta variant.

Many colleges now require students to be vaccinated against Covid-19 unless they are exempt for medical or religious reasons, particularly after the Pfizer vaccine was fully approved by regulators on Aug 23.

Some have even cancelled the enrolment of students who did not submit documentation of their vaccine or produced a valid excuse. Virginia Tech, for instance, said it had disenrolled 134 unvaccinated students.

Students are eager to embrace the full breadth and depth of college life, welcoming the chance to attend classes and hang out with friends in person. Yet this also means a daily calculus of figuring out whether in-person classes and social activities are safe to attend, especially among those coming from relatively less Covid-19-stricken countries.

"Safety levels really vary by activity," said Singaporean undergraduate Joellene Yap, 20, who double majors in media studies and data science at the University of California, Berkeley.

"For business clubs and the Singapore Student Association, all of us are vaccinated anyway and most of us are pretty stringent about wearing masks. But if you rush for a fraternity or a sorority, it might be slightly different because if you're drinking, your mask won't be on," she told The Straits Times.

"There's already a fraternity bro cluster among the fraternities, so we're trying to avoid the parties for now, because we're not sure what the social distancing is like."

Mr Yang Gan, 23, a third-year computational finance major at Carnegie Mellon University, told ST: "A lot of us are coming back to campus with a sort of cautious excitement. We are excited to meet people, and we are a bit more relaxed. We're not in emergency disaster mode. But a majority of us do have that sense of precaution."

Mr Yang, who is vaccinated and returned to the US from Singapore last week, is required to complete two weeks of asymptomatic testing within his first two weeks on campus.

"It's been 1½ years since I've seen my girlfriend in person, actually, and she just moved back as well," said Mr Yang. His girlfriend, a fellow student who is South Korean, had taken a gap year during the pandemic and spent it in her home country.

But out of caution, they were waiting for the two-week asymptomatic testing period to be over before meeting in person, he said.

Students who did virtual learning last year as classes went online also said they wanted the benefits of going for lectures and classes in person.

Many colleges now require students to be vaccinated against Covid-19, unless they are exempt for medical or religious reasons. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ms Emma Giron, 25, spent the first year of her international relations and economics Masters programme at Johns Hopkins University hoping that in-person classes might resume.

She moved to Washington, DC, where her campus is, because it was impossible for her to do her coursework from home in rural Montana, where she did not have high-speed Internet or sufficient mobile data each month.

"It didn't feel real. It felt like I was watching a YouTube video when my professors were lecturing," said Ms Giron. "I didn't feel like I learnt all that much. So I'm hoping to have a more full experience."

"Often I would be making lunch on the side or multi-tasking. One of the perks about going virtual was that I could go to class, turn my camera off and, you know, do the laundry or fold my clothes. But it's just a distraction from graduate school, which is a very important life step," she added.

Colleges may further tighten restrictions if the Delta surge worsens. But for now, students say they feel safer knowing that their classmates are vaccinated against the disease and regularly tested.

Said Ms Yap: "For me, I would say the cost-benefit analysis of being on campus and possibly being exposed to Covid-19 while being vaccinated is worth it, compared with staying at home and doing another semester online."

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