Yale announces new, stricter public health guidelines ahead of spring term
After announcing classes would be held online for two weeks, Yale instituted an on-campus quarantine until Feb. 7 and plans to continue grab-and-go dining, generating concerns from some students about travel hurdles and mental health tolls.
Natalie Kainz, Multimedia Managing Editor
Newly-announced policies meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as students return from winter break — including grab-and-go dining, the prohibition of all unapproved visitors and gatherings and a campus-wide quarantine — have prompted frustration from some members of the student body.
As students plan their return to campus for the spring semester, Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd has announced several public health restrictions for the first weeks of the semester in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainty about the highly transmissible Omicron variant. The news comes after the University’s announcement on Dec. 22 that the start of the spring semester would be delayed by one week until Jan. 25 and that the first two weeks of instruction would be conducted remotely.
“The COVID situation is always changing, which introduces an unsettling amount of uncertainty for everyone,” Akua Agyemang ’24, a Yale College Council senator, told the News. “We know it is difficult for Yale administration to make decisions quickly that are also in the best interest of everyone in the Yale community, however, these decisions, when made, should be communicated clearly and as quickly as possible, especially when they affect so many moving pieces within our lives as it pertains to travel and plans for the upcoming semester.”
Boyd wrote in an email to students on Tuesday afternoon that a two-phase quarantine will be imposed for the first weeks back on campus, with students self-isolating upon arrival until receiving an initial negative COVID-19 test and then following a campus-wide quarantine until Feb. 7, during which they should not frequent New Haven restaurants or businesses. Dining halls will continue grab-and-go service until further notice and students will be required to take COVID-19 tests before arriving on campus. Boyd also confirmed to the News that McClellan Hall, which was used as isolation housing earlier this fall but returned to its original use as a dormitory in November, would reopen as isolation housing.
On Jan. 7, University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler sent an email to students clarifying isolation timelines for individuals who test positive and announcing that all visitors and in-person gatherings would temporarily be prohibited without prior approval from public health officials. Spangler also announced updated mask guidelines, clarifying that cloth masks would no longer be acceptable face coverings.
For six students, the new restrictions have raised concerns about changing travel plans, the effect of isolation on mental health and broader disruptions to student life. YCC President Bayan Galal ’23 said that the quarantine period, “though a public health necessity, does come with its difficulties.” The YCC has therefore spent recent weeks providing administrators with “concrete recommendations for academics, gap semester declarations, financial considerations, and other aspects of student life impacted by the uncertainty of the Omicron variant,” Galal wrote in an email to the News. For their part, public health leaders said the restrictions are meant to avert outbreaks on a population-wide level within Yale and New Haven, as the nearby health system is already overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases.
“While I hope students will feel comfortable coming back to campus, it’s also possible to take a leave of absence—as a pandemic accommodation, Yale College continues to waive the cap on leaves of absence,” Boyd wrote in an email to the News.
Some of Yale’s peer institutions such as Harvard and Brown have announced that they will go forward with an in-person spring semester, and Dartmouth has already begun in person classes. Others, such as Columbia, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania either have begun or plan to begin their semesters online. But Yale’s arrival quarantine plans, which so far appear to be more stringent than its peer institutions, have garnered attention beyond the University community, receiving coverage from both NBC and Bloomberg.
Returning to campus
According to Boyd’s email, students will be required to test for COVID-19 before returning to campus, taking either a rapid test within 24 hours of travel or a PCR test within 72 hours of travel. Although students are not required to submit their test results, students who test positive should call the Campus COVID-19 Resource Line for instructions and wait to come to campus until their isolation period is complete, the email said.
Students concerned about the accessibility of clinical or at-home testing should order or schedule their tests in advance, Richard Martinello, medical director of infection prevention at Yale New Haven Health and a member of the public health committee which advises Spangler, advised. Boyd noted that students on Yale Health Hospitalization/Specialty Care coverage can follow instructions online to be reimbursed for up to one COVID-19 test per week while away from campus.
Students must test upon arrival and resume the twice-weekly testing schedule assigned on Dec. 8 upon their return to campus, according to Boyd, who recommended that students schedule their testing appointments as soon as possible, as demand for testing is high.
Boyd also wrote that students will be allowed to move in between Jan. 14 and Feb. 4 and can schedule an arrival time in the Yale College Housing Portal. Until Jan. 21, students will be taking make-up examinations from the fall 2021 semester. Residential colleges will observe a “quiet period” until this date — butteries and gyms will be closed, social gatherings will be prohibited and “daily quiet hours” will be in place.
Although Boyd’s email said that the closures were intended to “support” students taking exams, Martinello said that concerns about COVID-19 “absolutely” played a role in the decision to institute the quiet period, and that the closure of these public spaces was intended to minimize the areas where students might be congregating unmasked.
Classes will begin virtually on Jan. 25 and are set to become in-person on Feb. 7, barring any additional restriction announcements.
“I think we would very much like to see that date upheld,” Martinello said, “but it really depends on what happens with the virus and how well the community is doing.”
Martinello explained that factors including the amount of available isolation housing, hospital capacity and the prevalence of the virus in broader New Haven all contribute to decisions about the University’s public health policies.
The University moved to Orange COVID-19 alert level, which denotes “moderate risk,” on Dec. 19. Although the Orange level prohibits “gatherings of any size,” Martinello said that this restriction did not necessarily apply to in-person classes. The University has seen “no evidence of workplace or classroom transmission” with earlier COVID-19 variants, according to a Dec. 17 message from Spangler.
Dean of the Yale School of Public Health Sten Vermund, who also serves on the public health committee that advises Spangler, said that he did not think the University would pursue long-term remote instruction unless isolation housing became overwhelmed.
Dining halls, which transitioned to grab-and-go service on Dec. 16, will continue to serve to-go meals until public health conditions improve, according to Boyd’s email. The Morse and Stiles College dining halls will open on Jan. 14, and additional dining halls will open as the campus repopulates.
Boyd told the News that all students who were supposed to live in McClellan Hall, which will now serve as isolation housing, were offered on-campus singles for the spring semester, and that the students who were relocated to the Omni Hotel this fall were given the opportunity to return there.
Upon arrival to campus, students must quarantine in their residences until they receive results of an arrival test. During this first phase of quarantine, students are instructed to leave their residences only to pick up meals, take a COVID-19 test or “for other medical purposes,” and to mask while around their suitemates or other members of their households.
A campus-wide quarantine will remain in place until Feb. 7. During this period, students may move around campus but are told to “avoid local businesses, restaurants, and bars, including outdoor drinking or dining,” although they are permitted to “take walks or runs off campus” or order curbside pickup. Boyd’s email instructs students to “follow these guidelines whether you live on-campus or off.”
“Many students wanted to take precautionary measures before returning home to limit their family members’ exposure,” Boyd wrote in an email to the News. “The same reasoning applies here in reducing the chances of returning students inadvertently exposing the New Haven community to the virus. My hope is that the quarantine can be lifted on February 7 as planned, once it has served its purpose and enabled the public health advisers to evaluate the conditions after the students’ return.”
Boyd directed students to the University’s online fact sheet for more specific instructions for the on-campus quarantine. The fact sheet instructs students quarantining off-campus to restrict their movement to “the testing or medical facility, to shop for groceries, or your residence.” Students are also directed not to use public transportation, rideshare services, or the Yale shuttle.
In a departure from the tone of the Tuesday email, Boyd told the News that the administration was “just urging caution” with some aspects of the campus-wide quarantine, and did not respond to further requests for clarification about whether it would be enforced. But Martinello emphasized that all students in the University community are expected to abide by the campus-wide quarantine guidelines.
“We don’t see them as being optional,” Martinello said. “They are selected and communicated because we truly think that they will be impactful and they will help not only keep the community healthy, but allow there to be a successful semester.”
Yale’s Community Compact, which students are required to sign at the beginning of the academic year, includes a clause committing to “follow protocols to limit exposure established by the State of Connecticut or the City of New Haven.” Last year, Yale enforced its community compact through a Compact Review Committee, which heard cases of repeated public health guideline violations. Anecdotally, several students said that they did not hear of this same enforcement in the fall, once students were vaccinated and case counts fell. It is not yet clear whether Yale will enforce the spring term restrictions or rely on the honor system.
When students returned to campus for the spring 2021 semester, a month-long quarantine was enacted, which required students to remain in their suites until they received negative COVID-19 test results and to remain in their residential colleges until Feb. 15. The final phase of this quarantine, which extended from Feb. 15 from March 1, imposed similar guidelines to those outlined by Boyd for the second phase of this year’s quarantine — students were asked to minimize interaction with the city of New Haven, avoiding local establishments. In Spring 2021, however, students living off-campus were not required to abide by these regulations, while the current guidelines apply to students in both on-campus and off-campus housing.
According to Martinello, arrival quarantines can have a “huge impact” on preventing the spread of COVID-19 at the start of the semester.
“One of the big factors that really impacts how much COVID impacts the Yale population is those introductions of COVID into the population,” Martinello said. “When people return to campus, if they could be identified, and isolated if they’re contagious, then that minimizes how COVID has an opportunity to impact the community.”
Martinello added that the University emphasizes staggering arrivals to campus and enacting a campus-wide quarantine during the first weeks of the semester in order to prevent an early spike of COVID-19.
Vermund explained that the campus-wide quarantine was intended to “buy ourselves some time” for the pandemic to stabilize in the greater New Haven community.
“This is a stopgap approach to minimize transmission networks,” Vermund said. “Every time you walk into a restaurant or a store, you have a new potential transmission network, and keeping the network to a minimum, namely just to the limited Yale community, makes sense for a couple of weeks until we start to see the epidemiologic circumstance of the community decline.”
According to Martinello, New Haven is currently “seeing an enormous amount of COVID.” Yale New Haven Hospital is currently overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, expanding emergency room services to the hospital parking lot last month. Martinello explained that the public health restrictions were largely intended to work on a population-wide level rather than an individual one. Omicron cases seem to cause milder symptoms among fully vaccinated and boosted individuals than cases caused by other variants, Vermund said. But the University is trying to avoid a scenario in which there is a major outbreak as other college campuses saw at the close of fall semester, Martinello said.
Martinello told the News that “upwards of 10 percent” of patients scheduled for surgeries in the Yale New Haven Health system currently test positive for COVID-19 upon entering the hospital.
“Typically, these people are asymptomatic when they’re being tested, so I guess that that’s good news, but we know that some of them are what we would call presymptomatic, where they go on to develop symptoms,” Martinello said.“Among other populations, such as women coming in in labor, a high proportion of them are being found to have COVID also.”
Changes to campus life
In an email to students on Jan. 7, Spangler announced an additional series of changes to the University’s policies regarding isolation procedures, masking, gathering and visitors.
“The bottom line is that Omicron has proven to be a “game-changer” requiring us to fortify — and in some cases modify — the layers of protection that we have used to combat COVID-19,” Spangler wrote.
According to Spangler’s message, vaccinated faculty, staff and students living off-campus who test positive for COVID-19 must self-isolate for either seven days or until they have been without fever for 24 hours. Students living on-campus, who will relocate to isolation housing upon testing positive, will be “monitored for symptoms and tested to determine the best time for release from isolation.” According to Spangler, more information will be released about this process soon.
The University has also updated its mask policies, announcing that cloth masks are “no longer acceptable protection” unless they are worn over an acceptable mask. The University is now supplying masks approved by the American Society of Testing and Materials, which are acceptable for use on campus.
All individuals are required to mask while indoors regardless of vaccination status, unless they are alone in a “segregated space,” such as a private office or cubicle, according to the University’s online mask guidance. Unvaccinated individuals must also wear masks outdoors where six-foot social distancing cannot be maintained.
Until Feb. 21, all events, gatherings and meetings of any size will require prior approval from the COVID Review Team or a Health and Safety Leader, according to Spangler’s message. Visitors to campus will also require approval from the COVID Review team or an HSL until this date. The University recommends that meetings be moved online if possible and visits deferred until this date, with approval requested only for critical gatherings or visitors providing essential services.
“Come hell or high water, I will graduate in May”: Student perspectives
For many students, the changing COVID-19 restrictions and their effects on daily life are a persistent source of anxiety.
Grady Morrissey ’24 told the News that he had already made travel plans for the end of winter break and for spring break when the administration announced on Dec. 22 that winter break would be extended until Jan. 25, with spring break cut short by a week.
A Dec. 23 email from Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun announced that students who receive financial aid could request financial support for travel change fees from Yale Safety Net. But when Morrissey learned of the changes, he ended up paying to reschedule his flights out of pocket, adding that the University’s decision to make changes to the academic calendar in the middle of finals period was “very frustrating.”
Several students also raised concerns about the effect of isolation on their mental health.
Braxton Buff ’24 expressed his concern that public health conditions would result in the period of remote instruction being extended and strict restrictions continuing throughout the semester, which he said could contribute to mental health challenges for students.
“I’m sure there are some students fine staying in their room all day but I think a lot of us need somewhat consistent in-person socialization to not go mad,” Buff said. “I hardly got through last year — anything remotely similar to that would be hell.”
Ryan Smith ’24 concurred, suggesting that administrators increase their communication with students to ensure that COVID-19 policies are not harmful to student wellbeing.
Smith emphasized the long-term toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on students’ mental health, adding that administrators should focus on protecting the student body from “more than just COVID.”
“Mental health is a public health issue too,” Smith said. “Yale administrators need to work with students to ensure that their COVID decisions don’t negatively impact student wellbeing, and they need to make mental health resources accessible to everyone — without long waiting periods.”
Boyd did not respond to a request for clarification on the resources available to students who feel isolated as a result of on-campus quarantines.
For some students, the imposition of restrictions reminiscent of last year’s COVID-19 policies have prompted them to consider taking a leave of absence for the semester.
“I and many people I have talked to are definitely considering taking a leave,” Morrissey said. “As first-years last year, we gambled on the online year being a valuable use of our time, but for this coming semester we now know the severe effect the restrictions have on learning, community building, mental health and the like.”
Similarly, Edmund Zheng ’24 told the News that he would take a leave of absence if classes went remote for the rest of the semester.
Students have until Feb. 1 to apply for a leave of absence. But Morrissey emphasized his concern that he, and other students, would learn of the continuation of COVID-19 restrictions only after the Feb. 1 deadline had passed.
Buff, however, told the News that he did not see taking a leave of absence as a feasible option for him.
“I’ve considered taking a leave of absence, but quite frankly, I can’t afford it,” Buff said. “My college experience is pretty much at the mercy of the administration and how much they care about student life. I can’t afford to gap when things get lame like others can.”
Anne Northrup ’22 told the News that she was still excited to return to campus. But, she said, her feelings might change if additional restrictions, like classes moving online for the rest of the semester or in-person gatherings being further limited, are imposed.
As a second-semester senior, Northrup told the News that she is not considering taking a leave of absence regardless of public health conditions, adding, “come hell or high water, I will graduate in May.”
“I’m determined to make this semester a good one, no matter what the restrictions are,” Northrup wrote in an email to the News. “Of course, that will get exponentially harder if Yale decides to really lock us down, but right now the guidelines seem reasonable to me. Get tested and try to stay mostly on campus — that’s fine.”
Omicron at Yale
As students and administrators weigh the effect that COVID-19 will have on student life in the coming semester, the Omicron variant continues to spread nationally and in New Haven.
Yale set a new record for single-day COVID-19 cases on Jan 3, with 167 cases, according to the University COVID-19 dashboard. The previous record for single-day cases was set on Dec. 29, with 124 cases on campus. Of the 563 cases in the seven-day period between Dec. 30 and Jan. 5, 427 were among faculty and staff.
“We are seeing levels of COVID in our community that are greater than what we saw at the height of the first wave of the pandemic,” Martinello said. “We are seeing pressures on our hospital and health care system that we did not have at the height of the first wave of the pandemic. There is an enormous amount of effort in our healthcare system to really ensure that we’re doing what we can to provide for everybody’s needs, but it does create a concerning situation.”
Over break, Martinello advised that students exercise caution, avoid situations where they might risk COVID-19 infection and continue to abide by public health regulations when they return to campus.
Martinello cited bars and restaurants as places that students should avoid, and added that students should continue to wear masks when required during winter break, in particular in the two weeks before their scheduled return to campus.
Vermund emphasized the transmissibility of the Omicron variant, adding that hundreds or thousands of students contracting the virus upon their return to campus was “not out of the question,” but that administrators hoped to avoid that scenario.
But Vermund advised students who contracted the virus not to panic, explaining that their symptoms would likely be comparable to those of a cold or flu, and that they should expect to recover quickly.
“The rules and processes that have been put down are there not only for individual safety, but to make sure that the community as a whole stays safe and this semester is successful,” Martinello said. “What nobody wants to see is a situation where there’s a major outbreak on campus. We did see a number of examples, including Yale, where campuses were closed early. Nobody wants to see that. It really takes everybody’s effort to make sure that the community remains safe.”
Students are required to receive flu shots and booster shots to their vaccinations before returning to campus in the spring.