By Mariama Jallow
Inside Wake Forest University’s Benson University Center, Vanessa Christabel, a fully vaccinated student employee, is removing social distance and mask mandating stickers and signs.
After masking up and social distancing for the past year and a half, it feels like the start of a new chapter.
Benson is one of the buildings on the private university’s campus in Winston-Salem, where many of the 7,500 students cross paths.
Students collect their mail on the first floor, grab breakfast, lunch or dinner on the second floor, study on the second floor, have a club meeting or socialize in an organization’s lounge on the third floor. The fourth and fifth floors offer other offices and spaces where groups can meet.
The typical buzz of activity is more like a hum these days as college students are clinging to their final weeks of summer off-campus. Wake Forest starts its fall semester on Aug. 23.
Colleges and universities across North Carolina are getting prepared for students to flood their campuses again in the coming weeks.
What that will look like could be very different, depending on whether it’s a private or public school.
From mandatory weekly COVID-19 tests to a maskless campus
At Wake Forest University, students are required to get a vaccine before coming back on campus.
A July 14 email was sent to Wake Forest students warning them that if vaccination records were not sent in by Aug. 1, they would be removed from all enrolled courses and university-sponsored housing.
Students, however, were allowed to seek exceptions for medical or religious reasons.
If such appeals are successful, that student must wear a mask at all times on campus, submit to routine COVID-19 testing and follow different quarantine guidelines if exposed to COVID-19 than a fully vaccinated student.
“I think that it’s a bit too early for the school to decide what to do since we don’t know how bad or how effective no masks will be,” said Christabel. “We’re just expected to come back to Wake from different places or all over the world with a vaccination record, but no quarantining measures, no social distancing measures whatsoever.”
Zoom fatigue and the Delta variant
Similar to Wake Forest, Duke is also mandating all students, faculty and staff submit proof of vaccination, except those with religious or medical exceptions.
On Aug. 9, Durham declared a state of emergency because of the acceleration of COVID cases linked to the Delta variant. Even those who are fully vaccinated must wear a mask indoors, which means everyone on campus must wear a mask in all Duke-owned businesses. Here, too, there are some exceptions.
Lauren Xu, a fully vaccinated first-year graduate student at Duke Fuqua School of Business, said she is feeling bittersweet about being back to in-person class.
“I definitely had Zoom fatigue, but that’s where my fatigue began and ended. Zoom allowed me to step away and take care of myself,” Xu said.
After going through the past year and a half of undergraduate studies almost fully online, Xu said, “now I’m in lecture classes with 57 students, which is much bigger class sizes than I’m used to.”
Xu has been taking in-person classes for a few weeks now and said “It does make me feel anxious about how normal things are right now. There’s a lot of sensory overload for me, which is where my anxiety comes from.”
Online classes brought a sense of comfort for Xu. She could sometimes sleep in instead of rushing to campus or make a cup of tea during class.
“Working from home felt like working from a safe place, whereas in person I’m constantly surrounded by people who I may disagree with and there’s potential for conflict,” Xu said. “I am someone who is feeling-oriented in a social setting, working from home meant I was not soaking up other people’s stress around me.”
Not all private universities are requiring shots and masking. In a memo sent to students last week, High Point University Senior VP for Academic Affairs Dan Erb said that all classes will be held in standard rooms with no physical distancing. Some classes would be available for remote learning, but “some courses are not available for long-term remote learning.”
“Any member of the HPU Family who wants to wear a mask should do so,” he said, noting that complimentary masks are available on campus and required on public transportation and in child care centers, the student health clinic and many state hospitals.
“No faculty, staff, or student may ask another faculty staff or student if they are vaccinated, tell another to get the COVID-19 vaccine, or require others to wear a face mask,” his email continued. “HPU does not require faculty, staff, or students to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The decision whether or not to be vaccinated is a personal health/ medical decision and we do not wish to interfere with that decision.”
He noted there would be vaccination clinics on campus.
Public universities strike balance
According to The University of North Carolina System, “North Carolina introduced the nation to the concept of a public university.”
Now public universities are dealing with a global public health crisis which has created clashes over how to act during the pandemic and what is necessary to move North Carolina, the country and world to the other side.
On Aug. 5, the UNC system released a statement setting the bar for public schools.
“Balancing the need to protect public health while meeting our core mission of teaching, research, and public service has not been easy, and all of us have grappled with hard decisions over the past year,” UNC System President Peter Hans said in the Aug. 5 memo to all chancellors. “We will remain vigilant as the course of the COVID pandemic continues to evolve. One of the most important aspects of our response over the last year has been avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach, recognizing that circumstances and capacities are different at each of our institutions. We will continue to make decisions together based on public health guidance and the best available data, allowing each institution to adapt to changing local conditions.”
UNC administrators have contended that they do not have the authority to require all students to be immunized with COVID vaccines that to date have been authorized for emergency use only.
‘The message is clear’
Nonetheless, Hans offered a strong message in his Aug. 5 memo: “Vaccination is our best weapon against the virus.
“The message to our students is clear: get vaccinated or get tested regularly and quarantine if necessary,” Hans’ memo states.
“Chancellors should exercise their administrative authority over personnel at their institutions by putting a ‘get vaccinated or get tested regularly’ measure in place for their faculty and staff,” he wrote. “I think it’s reasonable, both for public health and for leadership by example, to ask our faculty and staff to comply with the same protective measures we are asking of our students.”
Chancellors, Hans said, have the authority to tailor strategies that take into account the different circumstances in each community surrounding the different campuses.
UNC Chapel Hill is following the guidelines set by the UNC systems. The numbers of students, faculty and staff that have been vaccinated are posted on their website in an attempt to encourage those coming to campus to do the same.
Carmen Chamblee, a UNC-CH senior majoring in journalism, is fully vaccinated, however she is still extremely nervous about going into this semester.
“I know a lot of people who are vaccinated and have gotten COVID,” Chamblee said. “It’s exciting to be back but also scary. UNC has a lot of history of getting in large groups, even after we transitioned online last year people were still having house parties. I think there may be some cases when we get back.”
Coming into this school year Chamblee is especially worried about how the university goes about enforcing the mask mandate on campus.
“To my knowledge, there were a lot more people of color getting in trouble with the mask mandate policy than white students,” Chamblee said. “Campus police would stop people of color around campus and they would get in trouble more than white students that would be hanging out in large groups.”
An article written by Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at UNC Chapel Hill, discusses “how for black Americans wearing a mask comes with complicated anxieties.”
Chamblee plans to avoid as many large groups as she can in the coming semester.
“However, I feel like I will probably be going to events, even if I am scared of COVID, because in the college experience, a lot of it is about building your network,” Chamblee said. “If you’re not out there building your network especially in my field then it’s kind of like a waste of time.”
Will there be a repeat?
Andy Bechtel, an associate journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who is fully vaccinated, has concerns about coming back to campus and teaching in-person classes again. Especially as the Delta variant rages among the unvaccinated, causing COVID case counts and hospitalizations to increase at alarming rates.
Bechtel said teaching in person could be even more problematic for professors who have small children at home who can’t get vaccinated.
“It’s a little bit unnerving to think about what happens if people start to get sick,” Bechtel said, recounting the campus experience in the fall of 2020 that put UNC-CH in the national headlines.
In August 2020, UNC-CH brought students back to campus before a vaccine was available to help keep COVID at bay. The Orange County health director and many faculty and staff were critical of the plan to house students in residence halls together and offer in-person instruction. They urged campus leaders to delay the on-campus plan and focus efforts on remote learning.
Within two weeks, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz sent an email to campus announcing the quick reversal of course. They sent most students out of campus dorms, switched to online classes and UNC-CH became a punchline among late-night comedians and talk show hosts.
“Last fall was very disruptive, we had to make that change in the second week of the semester which was a stressful time for everybody,” Bechtel said. “I am expecting to be teaching a class in person, but I’m getting more nervous with each passing day in the past couple of weeks with the Delta variant.”
On July 27, Bechtel tweeted: “I wish UNC would require students and staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID when the fall semester starts on Aug. 18.”
Bechtel mentioned that he has seen some of his other colleagues similarly express themselves on social media.
Bechtel said he wants his students to be safe and healthy during the spring semester. While he was getting the Pfizer vaccine he said he shared his experience with students, hoping to encourage them to get inoculated.
At NC State University, about 30 minutes away from UNC-CH, things are not looking much different for the fall semester as they did in the spring. NC State is encouraging all students, faculty, staff, alumni and their immediate families to get vaccinated by allowing them to make appointments on campus.
Those who have not submitted vaccination records will be subjected to surveillance testing, daily symptom monitoring and mandatory quarantine as part of contact tracing.
Sense of deja-vu
Cameron Booth, a junior at NC State who is fully vaccinated, said she was relieved last semester after getting sent home a few weeks after classes started because living on campus was immensely stressful.
“Folks were still partying and it was mainly Greek villages,” Booth said. “They were the biggest cause of COVID spreading.
“In our dining halls, there would be so many people in there maskless and it was shocking. I know you can’t expect people to wear a mask and eat, but that was terrifying for me.”
In the spring semester, Booth moved into an off-campus apartment and will be living there this year. That, she says, is helpful for her mental health. The surge of the Delta variant, though, makes her hesitant about going to in-person classes.
“I’m sure that there are people who aren’t vaccinated who will be on campus and even with the vaccine I can still get COVID and pass it to other people,” Booth said. “I was under the impression that everything was getting better. A couple months ago people were getting vaccinated but now with the Delta variant and so many people hesitant to take the vaccine it’s really nerve wracking.”
Booth has this sense of deja-vu: Everything that happened in the beginning of the pandemic seems to be happening all over again. This time, she says, she hopes people take things more seriously and get vaccinated.
Tending to mental health
Navigating online school and going back to campus are only a few of the challenges students have been facing this past year.
Houston Booth, a senior at Wake Forest University, mentioned that mental health is often at the center of every conversation that students have about COVID.
Trying to get mental health help often means students also have to navigate the new world of telehealth and hurdles of whether that’s covered by their insurance.
On March 1, the state Senate proposed a bill that calls for $1.5 million in additional funding for the statewide NC-STeP Telepsychiatry Program, bringing the total allocation for the fiscal year to $5.4 million.
The proposed bill stated that “more than 36 percent of Americans say that coronavirus is having a serious impact on their mental health”
Houston Booth has been navigating the challenges of teletherapy now for months.
“I have pretty good insurance because my dad is a veteran of the United States military,” Booth said. “So one of the perks that he has is being able to tag on his children and his spouse. The problem was, I turned 21 and aged out of my insurance. This left me without insurance for a month and a half. Due to my privilege, I never realized how terrifying it could be if something happened to me during that time.”
Booth said it is impossible for her to afford therapy without insurance. Without a therapist, she said, the progress she made dealing with her anxieties might be reversed right when school is about to start.
“I felt like I was stuck without insurance and because I’m looking for a black female psychologist, who specializes in my specific mental illnesses and worries,” Booth said. “The search is even more intense, I’m already looking for a really small percentage of people and that is even smaller depending on who will take my insurance.”
Training Mental Health First Aid instructors
Earlier this month, the UNC system announced the launch of Mental Health First Aid, a statewide initiative set up to help give students, faculty, staff and campus police officers new tools to deal with the growing number of mental health crises among young people.
That presents a problem for many universities and colleges, and Hans, president of the UNC system, hopes that putting roughly $1 million from the $5 million in the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund toward Mental Health First Aid, or MHFA, training will go a long way toward stemming such crises.
The idea behind the program is that many students in crisis are more likely to be in more routine contact with other students, faculty or campus staff than a therapist. If their peers, professors and others are trained to look for signs of trouble, they can step in and help with initial support if trained well.
In the fall, the UNC system will offer 15 three-day instructor courses with room for 240 participants. Those participants then will be required to teach an MHFA course at least three times per year to keep their certification, a trickling down or bubbling up, that will ultimately enlarge the number of instructors on campuses across the system.
The participants will be trained to look for signs and symptoms of substance abuse, as well as mental illness. Additionally, they will be taught how to interact with anyone in such a situation and how to connect them with help.
Ultimately, the program could result in more than 10,000 students, faculty and staff being qualified to help in such crises.
“All of us have a role to play,” Hans said in a statement. “We must do our part to build a supportive culture and show compassion for our fellow students, our friends, and our colleagues. Making this training more widely available will help us get to a place where those of us who are struggling can ultimately thrive.”