'We've learned a lot in two years.' Local universities prepare for fifth COVID-19 semester

Madeline Mitchell
Cincinnati Enquirer

This month marks the return of university students to campus, and for some, their fifth semester of pandemic-altered learning.

But while COVID-19 remains an issue at local colleges, Northern Kentucky University Provost Matt Cecil says school responses to the virus have changed over time.

More: UC goes to online learning for first two weeks of spring semester, officials say

More: Northern Kentucky University delays classes due to COVID-19 surge

"We've learned a lot in two years," Cecil says. "The character of each variant is a little different as well."

A student walks past the University of Cincinnati sign on the UC campus on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.

While the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus is highly contagious, experts say the disease it causes in people is less severe than some previous variants.

For NKU, Cecil says the university wanted to "buy a little bit of time" while this new variant spread in the greater community, and delayed classes for a week. He says the university will continue to look at the number of quarantined students, staff absences and local hospitals to determine the possibility of remote classes moving forward this semester. 

Booster requirements not likely this semester

Most universities in the region – including University of Cincinnati, Miami University, Xavier University and Mount St. Joseph University – required all students and employees to receive COVID-19 vaccines before returning in the spring. Cecil says NKU administrators did discuss implementing a vaccine mandate, but ultimately decided not to. NKU does not require any other vaccines for students or staff.

For universities that have required vaccinations thus far, the next question is: Will booster requirements be next? 

Not likely. 

Xavier spokesperson Doug Ruschman says the idea of a booster requirement has gone in front of the university's COVID-19 task force, but says it will not happen this semester.

Implementing a booster requirement would be "impossible," Miami vice president of student life Jayne Brownell says.

"No one is on a similar booster schedule," she says. "We are much more likely, coming into a new year, to say, 'OK, where are you? Let us know where you are.' Rather than trying to track each student during the year. But we're going to do weekly booster clinics."

At UC, booster shots are not currently required but are "strongly recommended," university officials said.

Be ready to adapt, school leaders say

Like every COVID-19 semester before, university leaders emphasized the need for faculty, staff and students to be flexible this spring.

If a professor is sick or needs to quarantine, Brownell says, a class may go online for a week. Other modifications may be made if staff shortages arise.

"We need to have enough dining workers who are healthy to keep every dining hall functioning," she says. "Is it possible that we may have to say, for a few days, these dining facilities are open but that one isn't? It's possible. Or an advising office, maybe, will be virtual for a week."

Thomas More University President Joseph Chillo says the Crestview Hills-based university will offer courses in-person, online and in a hybrid format for the first three weeks of the spring semester.

"This will reduce the number of students on-campus while Covid continues to surge across our communities," Chillo said in an email. "We will resume a fully in-person experience this spring as soon as this Covid surge declines sufficiently to ensure the safety and well-being of our community."

The region's technical and community colleges have made many changes over the last two years, too, in order to keep hands-on and skills-based classes running in-person. 

Cincinnati State Technical and Community College Provost Robbin Hoopes says the college's lectures have been moved online so that other classes can have more room for social distancing. 

The college has also spent upwards of $1 million of federal pandemic relief funds on new equipment, Hoopes says. Duplicating machinery the college already possessed has allowed for multiple lab stations and further distancing while on campus.

Teri VonHandorf, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Gateway Community and Technical College, says about half of Gateway students chose online classes this semester.

"The good thing about the last two years is that we have a lot of practice in pivoting from in class to going remote," VonHandorf says, noting the college had a strong online program to begin with. "Those teachers that were primarily teaching in-person and had to go remote (at the start of the pandemic), I mean, they've had two years to perfect that. So we're really relying on our past experiences and all that we've learned."

At this point, she says, the college is not discussing a blanket pivot to remote learning. Instead, Northern Kentucky-based Gateway is taking a class-by-class approach depending on COVID-19 cases and quarantine numbers.

NKU's Cecil says students have been "most resilient" during the pandemic, though he knows keeping some of the social activities virtual is not ideal for these young adults.

"It's not what they want," Cecil says. "We know that. We try to make it as 'normal' as we can. But students have found ways to continue to be connected."

Current COVID-19 safety policies

Below is a back-to-school schedule for regional colleges and universities, along with COVID-19 protocols in place on each campus:

University of Cincinnati

First day of spring semester classes: Classes began virtually on Jan. 10 and students will revert back to full in-person classes on Jan. 24.

Masks required? Yes.

Vaccines required? Yes.

Return to campus testing requirement? Yes. All residential students, regardless of vaccination status, are required to receive a COVID-19 PCR test within 48 hours of check-in.

Northern Kentucky University

First day of spring semester classes: Jan. 18.

Masks required? Yes.

Vaccines required? No.

Return to campus testing requirement? No.

Cincinnati State Technical and Community College

First day of spring semester classes: Jan. 18.

Masks required? Yes.

Vaccines required? No.

Return to campus testing requirement? No.

Miami University

First day of spring semester classes: Jan. 24.

Masks required? Yes. Brownell says the university will revisit this policy monthly.

Vaccines required? Yes.

Return to campus testing requirement? Yes. All on-campus Oxford residential students are required to provide a negative PCR COVID-19 test result, administered no more than three days before returning to campus.

Xavier University

First day of spring semester classes: Jan. 10.

Masks required? Yes.

Vaccines required? Yes.

Return to campus testing requirement?  Students were expected to perform at-home COVID-19 tests before returning to campus, and to stay home and isolate if they were positive.

Gateway Community College

First day of spring semester classes: Jan. 10.

Masks required? Yes.

Vaccines required? No.

Return to campus testing requirement? No.

Mount St. Joseph University

First day of spring semester classes: Jan. 10.

Masks required? Yes.

Vaccines required? Yes.

Return to campus testing requirement? No.

Thomas More University

First day of spring semester classes: Jan. 10.

Masks required? Yes.

Vaccines required? Some students participating in clinical, student teaching or other experiential learning sites may be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Return to campus testing requirement? Yes. All resident students must provide a negative COVID-19 test result or proof of vaccination prior to returning to university housing, according to the district's website