Wheaton College began the 2022 spring semester with heightened COVID-19 precautions amid a nationwide surge of cases due to the Omicron variant. On Jan. 3, via a video message from President Ryken, the College announced a number of new restrictions for returning students, including virtual chapel services for the first two weeks of the semester, quarantine protocols for non-boosted students and an expectation to take a COVID test before returning to campus.
The Omicron variant, which arrived in the U.S. in late November and has spread rapidly, has fueled a surge in the number of COVID cases across the U.S. that impacted the College’s student body. According to the case numbers that were self-reported to Student Health Services (SHS), during the three weeks of Christmas break a total of 254 undergraduate and graduate students contracted COVID. 57 students could not immediately return to campus for the start of the spring semester due to the College’s requirement that COVID-positive students remain at home.
Beth Walsh, the director of Student Health Services and a member of the COVID Leadership Team, closely followed the virus’s spread during the break amid the College’s preparations to tackle the Omicron variant. Though the College required all students to take a negative COVID test before returning to campus, Walsh noted the difficulties of enforcing the testing protocol.
“We recognized that, logistically, it would be very difficult because students check in at all different times,” said Walsh. “We just didn’t have a system that would work well to see that test, so we decided to go with the honors system and ask students to do their best to secure a test. Additionally, we conducted about 30 rapid antigen tests for students at SHS for those who couldn’t secure one before coming to campus.”
At least 432 Wheaton students have contracted COVID since the start of Christmas break. This number includes 178 students who have tested positive since the start of the spring semester, according to the COVID-19 dashboard. During the fall 2021 semester, 162 students tested positive.
Lucy Chapman, an undeclared freshman from Santa Barbara, Calif., arrived on campus a week late because of COVID. “The day before I was supposed to return to campus, my sister tested positive for COVID, and I had been feeling some COVID symptoms for a few days,” said Chapman. “Even though I had a negative test, after chatting with SHS, ultimately I decided that I didn’t want to take the risk of infecting people around me.”
With classes meeting in-person instead of virtually, Chapman returned to Wheaton feeling a week behind in her schoolwork.
“I tried to be on top of it by sending them emails and being in contact with them, but it was difficult to stay in the loop because I didn’t know what I had missed,” said Chapman. “I didn’t know what I should ask them. Even now, after being back for a full week, I’m still getting my feet back under me.”
Campus life has been affected by the Omicron variant as well. The administration has encouraged students to utilize grab-and-go options from Anderson Commons rather than eating indoors in the cafeteria. Sam’s Cafe in Lower Beamer was also closed for the first two weeks of the semester. Meanwhile, many events have been cancelled or postponed and the COVID Leadership Team has put limits on the number of spectators for various performances and competitions on campus.
Shortly after the beginning of the semester, Air Jam, an annual lip sync competition for student groups initially scheduled for Feb. 5, was postponed to April 1 because of the increasing number of cases on campus. Sophomore Skylar Bartman, a music major with elective studies in Bible and theology and an event coordinator for College Union, explained the decision to postpone.
“With so many COVID cases, we weren’t even sure if we were going to be able to have people attend,” Bartman said. “College Union chose to prioritize the campus’s health instead of just having an event recklessly for the sake of campus spirit. We really wanted the campus to be safe.”
For the first time during the 2021-22 school year, undergraduate chapel services were replaced for three weeks by small optional worship gatherings on Wednesdays and Fridays due to COVID concerns. In-person chapel resumed on Monday, Jan. 31 with COVID-safe protocols in place.
COVID quarantine protocols have changed as well, as both unvaccinated students and vaccinated students who are not boosted are required to quarantine for five days if identified as a COVID close contact. Prior to Feb. 1, fully vaccinated students without booster shots were exempt from the quarantine rules.
Although Walsh acknowledged that the student body, like everyone, is suffering from pandemic fatigue, she encouraged cooperation with the new and continuing regulations.
“We all have a bit of pandemic fatigue,” said Walsh. “We understand the social dynamic; you’re with your roommates, unmasked, then you go over to Lower Beamer and you have to be masked with them. We understand it’s not a perfect system, but we hope that all our protocols are helping us.”
The easing of restrictions remains dependent on the dynamic COVID situation. The COVID Leadership Team is examining COVID data to ensure a safe return to campus life without the threat of outbreaks or a school shutdown.
Walsh emphasized that after a sharp spike in cases to start the semester, the number of new COVID cases on campus is rapidly declining.
“I am so happy to report we have no one at the East Campus isolation center right now,” said Walsh. “We will try to keep any new positive students at the on-campus apartments if our numbers allow.”
According to the COVID-19 dashboard, COVID cases on campus have decreased from 69 students in isolation on Jan. 20 to eight students as of Jan. 31.