Pupils bustle together, less than 6 feet apart. Laughter is painted on their faces by long-awaited smiles. Life feels standard until they scale the steps of the sumptuous Hamilton Smith, pulling masks on to conceal half their face.
A cold reminder that, even though campus life looks ordinary, students are still fighting the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic three semesters later.
This illusion of regularity is deliberate, says University of New Hampshire (UNH) Health & Wellness Medical Director, Dr. Peter Degnan. Degnan says the state’s health department has relaxed quarantine guidelines and UNH is trying to make life for the students feel as normal as possible.
“UNH has very responsibly walked that fine line between appropriate guidelines and opening the university to a more ‘normal’ student experience,” says Degnan.
Differing from the previous year, this fall semester is characterized by the state’s lifted mask mandate. Students are no longer required to wear a mask outside.
For many, this is liberating.
“I think that students were getting frustrated that we had to wear a mask all the time on campus,” says Ali Whitman, a senior occupational therapy major. “It’s nice to be able to walk outside without a mask and only have to put it on in the classroom.”
Widespread vaccination is another element of freedom that is key to an improved sense of normalcy at UNH. Roughly 88% of students have provided proof of vaccination, according to UNH President James Dean.
Degnan says that the high degree of vaccination is helping the university contain the quantity of COVID-19 cases, as well as the severity.
“It is certainly encouraging that the vast majority of our students, faculty and staff have chosen to be vaccinated against COVID infection” says Degnan.
The abundant distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine is helping many students feel safer this year.
“It feels like we can fight back a bit,” said junior finance and marketing major, Jake Kitterman.
Because most of the UNH population is vaccinated, Kitterman believes there is less reason to be worried. He stresses that the vaccines are highly effective against the Delta variant.
“I am not super concerned about the Delta variant of COVID-19,” says Kitterman.
Additionally, professors have appreciated the extra level of protection provided by vaccines.
“I feel safe on campus” says clinical associate professor Gretchen Bean. “I am fully vaccinated and have been wearing a mask in public places.”
Despite feeling safe about vaccine, many are still nervous about the COVID-19 variants they hear about in the news.
Owen Donahue, a senior recreation, management and policy major worries that the more transmissible variants of the virus, like Delta, could cause cases to surge.
“It’s definitely looking like we could have another spike like last year,” says Donahue. “I’m just hoping for the best and doing my part to not get sick or spread it around.”
Students like Whitman warn others not to underestimate the new wave of variants.
Upon arriving in town, Whitman was hopeful that the high level of vaccinations would protect students against the virus. She was surprised when her fully vaccinated roommate tested positive on the first week of school.
“That is when I realized that vaccinated or not, everyone is still at risk for contracting COVID,” says Whitman.
While Whitman acknowledges that the vaccine can decrease symptoms of COVID-19—her roommate endured a “really bad headache” and lost her sense of taste and smell—she knows that people can still get very sick from the virus.
Though the vaccines have made life feel safer in Durham, Whitman is aware of how careful she still needs to be in the occupational therapy field.
“This year, we start our Level 1 fieldwork,” says Whitman. Along with other peers in her major, Whitman will be working one-on-one with clients recovering from substance abuse disorders.
“I’m concerned that if I were unknowingly positive, I could bring [the virus] to the clinic and those patients would lose access to a vital part of their healthcare,” she says.
Students like Whitman are justified in their fears of contracting or transmitting the disease.
Degnan says that 95% or more of New England’s current cases can be attributed to the highly infectious Delta variant. Variants provide the threat of sometimes eluding the protection offered by the vaccination, according to Degnan.
In the face of the unpredictability presented by COVID-19 variants, campus confidence about the vaccine is simultaneously mixed with looming anxieties. Dean’s email from last Thursday further exacerbated these blended emotions.
Contained in the email is an intensified mask mandate that will require face-coverings in all indoor areas across campus.
“Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise on our campus,” the email states. “Our test positivity rate is still below 1% and most positive cases have relatively minor symptoms.”
Last year, the university converted to an online mode when the positivity rate surpassed 1%. Many are hoping history doesn’t repeat itself this semester.
“Pivoting to remote is far from ideal,” says Bean, who would much rather instruct classes in person. “But we could handle it.”
Bean assumes that the UNH administration wouldn’t hesitate to conduct online classes if warranted, even for only a short period of time.
The prospect of remote learning threatens the recent taste of normalcy on campus. Students and faculty alike should continually strive for this normalcy, says Degnan.
“The research shows that natural immunity after COVID infection can be enhanced by vaccination,” says Degnan. “I would encourage any member of the UNH community…to please get vaccinated, regardless of whether you have had COVID illness in the past.”
Degnan says that continued testing, mask use, and physical distancing are the most crucial tools to protect our peers and return to normal life on campus. If the community can responsibly conduct these practices, Degnan is hopeful that the UNH community can combat the variants.
“I am cautiously optimistic that COVID can be managed successfully as the university continuously evaluates the status of COVID on campus and responds with carefully considered public health measures,” says Degnan.
Photo courtesy of the CDC.