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Many colleges relax mask rules in third year of coronavirus pandemic

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At George Washington University, masks are still primarily required indoors. The same goes for vaccination against the coronavirus, with a booster shot. The same goes for viral testing for students returning to campus.

The Catholic University, a few miles away, makes it all optional.

The two universities in the nation’s capital exemplify divergent public health strategies as colleges enter the third fall term since the shocking pandemic upheavals of early 2020.

While the rules are stricter in some places, more flexible in others, the objectives remain the same everywhere: to contain the persistent threat of covid. Keep classes running and students enrolled.

Colleges strained amid the omicron wave

For their part, students feel relief even in places that continue with relatively strict protocols.

“Right now I feel the most freedom to do whatever I want without general concern,” said 20-year-old Isabella Banks, a junior at GWU. “That has changed over the years. When I first set foot on campus I was like, public health is everything.

Now, she says, the situation has gone from crisis to routine. But it remains a constant in his thoughts. “I don’t think I’ve ever monitored how much I wash my hands as much as I have for the past two years,” she said.

Across the country, colleges were sharply divided last year on whether to require vaccination. This split continues. The University of California at Berkeley, for example, is mandating the coronavirus vaccine and, for those who are eligible, a booster. The University of Texas at Austin does not require them but “strongly encourages” them.

Isolation rules for people infected with the virus and quarantine rules for people exposed to it appear to be easing in many places. The same goes for strict interior masking policies. UC-Berkeley, which required face coverings indoors a year ago, now strongly recommends that masks be worn indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

In the Washington area, policies regarding indoor masks vary in detail from campus to campus. It remains to be seen to what extent the rules will be followed and to what extent they will be enforced.

Georgetown University said masks are needed in classrooms and labs while teaching. They are also mandated in health establishments and early childhood education centers, and on university shuttles. But they are otherwise optional.

The American University said masks are optional in most places but required during class. “Our hope is to eventually reach a point where masks can be optional in the classroom,” AU officials wrote Aug. 11.

Howard University said its faculty may need masks for individual classes. The University of Maryland said masks are mostly optional but as of Friday had not decided whether to require them during classes. George Mason University in northern Virginia said masks are optional.

At Trinity Washington University, masks are required indoors. Patricia McGuire, president of the Catholic Women’s College, said the campus community supported the mandate.

Trinity Washington also requires vaccination against the coronavirus.

“Our philosophy here is to be wary and take what we think are very cautious actions,” McGuire said. “Everyone here is concerned about ‘Are we safe enough? Nobody here, I can tell you, nobody resisted the masks.

Catholic University, neighboring Trinity, has much less restrictive policies. But Catholic said he was following guidelines from public health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Throughout the pandemic, Catholic University has implemented COVID protocols that have aligned with DC and CDC guidelines, and have worked best for our community,” said Karna Lozoya, vice-president. president of university communications, in a press release. “We have successfully navigated this pandemic for two years, and we will continue to actively monitor COVID as well as other health threats as they emerge.”

CDC relaxes coronavirus guidelines, signaling policy shift

At GWU, the district’s largest university, more than 2,700 freshmen were expected to arrive in waves starting Saturday.

They will be required to participate in virus testing upon arrival, but there will be no ongoing testing warrants during the semester. Georgetown has a similar policy.

GWU officials said their public health protections are aimed at providing the most open campus experience since fall 2019.

“They will be able to engage with each other,” said Colette Coleman, GWU vice provost for student affairs and dean of students. “Make friends, socialize in the halls, and acclimatize to being a college student.”

The university is also celebrating the opening of a renovated freshman dormitory on F Street NW, Thurston Hall, with 820 beds.

Previously in the pandemic, move-in days were tightly orchestrated, with timed entry to ensure minimal contact between groups of people and reduce the risk of viral spread. In August 2021, Coleman said, the move in was a “traditional college experience.” Many were simply grateful to be able to be on campus.

This year, there will still be designated arrival times. But the two-hour entry time windows will overlap. This will create more opportunities to mingle.

Colleges warn students of monkeypox risk

GWU officials, like others across the country, are also reminding students to beware of a new threat, monkeypox, which causes painful rashes. This virus can be spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact and through contact with sheets and towels used by infected people, so the university is urging students to do their laundry regularly.

Compared to her first two years at GWU, Banks said she felt much more comfortable. The junior from Brunswick, Maine, is majoring in international affairs and helping with student orientation this summer.

During her freshman year, Banks was one of the few students allowed to live in a GWU dorm beginning in January 2021. “I had a single in what was supposed to be a double,” she recalled. “To say it was a ghost town was an understatement.”

She wore masks everywhere except when she was alone in her room, and she had minimal contact with other students. “It was definitely weird,” she said. In May, she was vaccinated at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. “I felt like I could finally breathe.”

Students struggle with mental health issues as pandemic drags on

In her second year, things opened up a lot more. But masks were still ubiquitous, she said, and viral testing was mandatory once a week. She was tested twice a week, just to be on the safe side. “We all had an extra sense of purpose to make sure we were following covid protocols,” she said. “We knew we didn’t want to have to go home anymore.” Still, Banks said she and her roommate contracted milder cases of covid in April and self-isolated for six days.

Now Banks is looking forward to a nearly unfettered year, including a planned spring semester in Madrid. But she still plans to wear a mask everywhere and be careful of doorknobs and other surfaces she touches. “I definitely think about public health more than ever in my life,” she said.