UTAH (ABC4) – Summer 2021, which had some degree of normalcy as compared to 2020, is drawing to a close. That means fall semester classes are beginning this month at colleges and universities throughout the state.
In non-pandemic years, it would be an exciting time filled with comparing schedules, meeting new friends and roommates, and many, many freshmen trying to convince themselves that they’ll happily wake up and attend a class with an 8 a.m. start time.
However, with COVID still lingering due to the emergence of variants, such as the much-discussed Delta, and continued vaccine hesitancy by some groups, there are some concerns and questions surrounding what campus life will look like this fall.
In short, there’s no telling for sure. Student life leaders and representatives from Brigham Young University, Utah State University, and the University of Utah all tell ABC4.com that the plan, for now, is to prepare for a new semester that would be as normal as possible, while keeping an eye on any developing situations that could throw things for a loop.
Spokespersons from all three schools feel confident in their institution’s ability to adjust.
“One thing we’ve learned from this pandemic is that things change very quickly, and our response to it should as well,” U of U Student Affairs Vice President Lori McDonald states.
As far as setting restrictions and mandates to incoming students and faculty members, public universities such as Utah and Utah State are limited in their ability due to a ban that was passed in a special session by the state legislature in May. A private university, like BYU, has a bit more flexibility when it comes to setting requirements on masks, according to Todd Hollingshead, a spokesperson for the Provo-based school.
However, like the rest of the universities in the state, BYU is in a holding pattern of “wait and see.” To guide any decisions that may need to be made at any point this fall, the university is gathering data from a survey issued to incoming students on information such as vaccination status, feelings on mask-wearing, and other factors. From there, the proper assessment and actions will be made.
As it stands now, all the typical events and activities at BYU, such as in-person classes, live devotionals, and sporting events are all slated for full attendance, without a mask requirement. Utah has also made a similar announcement regarding its sporting events and classrooms.
“At this point, our plan is to have all those events in the traditional sense but we are going to be watching closely on where things are at and make sure that we make correct decisions moving forward,” Hollingshead explains.
One issue that may be of concern for students is the housing situation. The consensus from the three previously stated colleges is they are sensitive to concerns and are trying to facilitate open and kind communication from students who have been paired together to live at on-campus housing.
Administrators at Utah State are working to connect future roommates with each other so they can discuss their views on vaccinations and the virus and establish a level of comfortability together.
“We can provide information to them in advance and they can begin to have their private conversations about how they will handle that, as, you know, fellow roommates and residents in that suite or in that room,” Utah State University Vice President of Student Affairs James Morales assures. “We really encourage that kind of interaction to be happening and we will facilitate that as much as we possibly are permitted to.”
Despite the lingering risk inherent in living with a possible stranger during a pandemic, McDonald shares that the demand for on-campus housing reached an all-time high heading into the fall. Usually, McDonald and her team are able to fill nearly every request for housing, including last year when 98% of the waitlist got into a dorm. This year, many had to be turned away.
She’s guessing that the university, which has long had a reputation as a commuter campus among Salt Lake Valley natives, is seeing the fruits of building a more engaged campus community. She’s also supposing that many young people who were cooped up at home for the last 18 months or so are chomping at the bit to get out on their own.
Before they move into their dorm at the University of Utah, students will be subjected to COVID testing. Based on the results, university staff can then make accommodations to isolate students who test positive, while also offering a vaccine on site. These actions are based on recommendations from the American College Health Association, McDonald explains.
Like Utah State, the incoming students at Utah are also being asked to be as considerate as possible with each other. McDonald considers the situation to be a potential learning experience in itself.
“It can be a little mysterious, it can be a little scary, and it can be quite exciting to live with people you don’t know and learn how to live in a community,” she says. “The students develop that community and they have to learn how to hold each other accountable or make suggestions and how do you deal with conflict. Human conflict comes in many forms and will continue throughout their life.”