Winter semester COVID-19 policy creates cause for concern

Since it was first detected in the U.S. on Dec.1, 2021, the COVID-19 omicron variant has become the most dominant strain of the virus in the country, making up over 95% of COVID-19 cases as of Jan. 1, 2022.

Omicron is more contagious than previous COVID-19 strains like delta, and even those who have been fully vaccinated and received a booster dose of the vaccine may still become infected and spread the virus.

COVID-19 infections have surged over the last month on national, state and local levels. While symptoms of the omicron variant have been described as “mild,” those who are unvaccinated or immunocompromised are more likely to be hospitalized due to the virus.

In Ottawa county, the percentage of occupied hospital beds has remained between 60% and 80% for the last 21 days. As of Jan. 7, 79.7% of beds were occupied. 29% to 34% of those beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients. According to data from the Mayo Clinic, Ottawa County averages 375 COVID-19 cases per day, while Kent County averages 1,099. At the same time, Michigan is facing a shortage of monoclonal antibody doses, the only effective treatment for omicron.

In the college sphere, the debate between in-person and online learning remains, despite the pandemic having gone on for almost two years, and three full semesters. 

Due to the surge in COVID-19 in Michigan, Oakland University, Wayne State University, Eastern Michigan University and Michigan State University have delayed in-person classes at the beginning of the semester, opting to hold classes virtually. MSU, Wayne State and the University of Michigan are also requiring students and staff to receive a COVID-19 booster shot. 

After these decisions were announced, students and staff at Grand Valley State University wondered what the university’s response might be. On Jan. 5, President Philomena Mantella sent out an email explaining the university’s decision to return from break with in-person classes, without a booster mandate, as planned. 

GVSU did raise the COVID-19 Alert Level, which has been increased to a level three. This level really only affects students who live on-campus and campus dining. While this alert level does provide safer conditions and mandates for students living on-campus, it offers little to students, faculty and staff who live off-campus and commute to the university. 

Other universities in the state have made strong and clear statements to keep their students and staff safe. They’ve limited sporting events to only vaccinated spectators, have mandated that students receive a booster shot and have made classes virtual. The email explaining to students that practically nothing will change except an alert level while omicron spreads is frankly disappointing. 

Students posted in the Grand Valley State University Class of 2022 Facebook page and many echoed the same thoughts of fear and hesitancy with being back in-person. 

Some students and staff don’t feel comfortable returning to in-person classes while the virus spreads and GVSU isn’t offering these students any other path to take classes. The university has also praised students and staff several times in emails for their diligence, precautions and struggles while they followed the university’s mandate and limited the spread of COVID-19. However, when it was the university’s turn to take steps to limit the spread of omicron, they failed their students and staff. 

Some professors have taken it upon themselves to move their classes entirely online. Others have chosen to remain in person, but have requested that their students purchase KN95 or N95 masks, which are more effective at preventing transmission than cloth masks. If the students are unable to do so, they have requested that the students wear a combination of surgical and cloth masks, or double up on one, or the other. 

GVSU can’t avoid outbreaks by continuing as normal; last semester’s policy had flaws when it came to deadlines, testing and contact tracing. With an airborne, highly contagious variant spread throughout the county, GVSU’s health and safety guidelines for the winter semester won’t necessarily be effective in limiting the spread of the virus. 

Like professors trying to take proactive measures to keep their students safe, it will be up to individual members of the GVSU community to receive the booster, wear an effective mask and avoid high-risk gatherings.