‘Everything is out the window’: College returns to in-person learning amid unprecedented COVID surge

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Photo: Jiaxin Xu

Emerson students having classes.

By Vivi Smilgius and Adri Pray

Less than a week into the spring 2022 semester, Emerson has already reported 228 positive COVID-19 tests, leading to uncertainty regarding the rest of the semester amid rising cases statewide.

Emerson’s case numbers since the start of the spring testing cycle on Jan. 3 have already surpassed the 184 cases reported throughout the entirety of the fall 2021 semester. The inflated case numbers bring the college’s test positivity rate to a record-high 4.55 percent.

The spike in cases reflects a recent surge of the virus in Massachusetts and across the country, largely due to the Omicron variant. Boston reported 2,747 new cases on Jan. 11, and has regularly seen case numbers reach well into the thousands since the surge of the Omicron variant. The state reported 22,184 positive cases on Wednesday, with the seven-day positivity rate sitting at 21.61 percent. Hospitalizations rose from 2,970 to 3,087, and the death toll rose by 75.

Massachusetts tracks two kinds of COVID-19 positivity rates—one including higher education testing and one without. Wednesday’s numbers showed a positivity rate excluding higher education institutions of 25.1 percent. The rate including higher education currently sits at 21.7 percent.

Associate Vice President for Campus Life Erik Muurisepp, who serves as the college’s “COVID Lead,” said both Emerson’s and Boston’s numbers have been higher than anticipated.

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“I think everything is out the window of what we thought,” he said in an interview with The Beacon. “We certainly never thought we’d see 5 percent on campus. I never thought I’d see a 32 percent rate in the city of Boston.”

He added that the college was working to react accordingly to the unprecedented situation.

“It’s just a new day of the virus,” he continued. “We’re making every effort… to make sure that we are keeping everyone safe.”

To decrease opportunities for on-campus transmission, the college opted to conduct its first week of classes virtually, with grab-and-go dining policies and closures to the library and campus gym. A community-wide email sent Tuesday night announced classes would resume in-person on Jan. 18 as planned, but grab-and-go dining will remain in effect until Jan. 24. The email also urged students to “refrain from gathering in indoor spaces, beyond classroom activity” through Jan. 24.

The college also announced an updated quarantine and isolation plan, reflecting new guidelines from the to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Per CDC guidelines, students who have not received their boosters must quarantine in their assigned spaces for five days after exposure to COVID, with the day of exposure serving as day zero. 

The city of Boston has also taken further steps to curtail the spread of Omicron. On Dec. 20, Mayor Michelle Wu announced a vaccine requirement for all city workers and patrons of city businesses effective Saturday. The city has also implemented a new app called “B Together” to serve as digital verification of vaccination.

Muurisepp emphasized the importance of a community-wide effort in the transition to in-person life at Emerson, advising students to remain masked, continue social distancing and communicate with faculty if they are feeling under the weather.

“We’re going to have to play it day-by-day,” he said.