Stony Brook University students are starting their fall semester return without any COVID-19 restrictions, and some are very happy about that. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Colleges and universities are welcoming students back for fall semester with COVID-19 protocols more relaxed than at any time since the pandemic closed campuses in March 2020.

On most campuses, vaccinations are mandatory but masks are now optional. Extracurriculars and welcoming ceremonies are in person. Crowd limits are gone in classrooms and dorms, and students exposed to the virus don't have to quarantine — they can wear masks instead.

Some COVID-19 testing, especially of those with medical or religious exemptions to vaccinations, remains in place.

“It is such a wonderful feeling — I feel like we’ve turned back to 2019, the way the college experience should be,” said Richard Gatteau, vice president for student life at Stony Brook University. “I will say, in society and everyone I see around campus, there is just not the same level of concern. If anybody wants to wear a mask, they are welcome to do so.”

Thousands of incoming freshmen recently moved into Stony Brook University dorms and took part in Welcome Week’s convocation, Casino Night and Movie Night, with few masks in sight and relief over the feeling of normalcy. 

Freshman Flor Zamalloa of Queens, wearing the red shirt worn by her class for convocation, said she was grateful she had not begun college when COVID-19 protocols were most restrictive. “There wasn’t any energy. I saw it in high school,” she said. “I feel like it’s very different now — there’s a new vibe to this school, and I’m glad that we’re here to revive it and I’m really excited for it.”

However, COVID-19 infection rates on Long Island remain high, with the seven-day average test positivity rate at 8.02% as of Monday. Because of the high transmission rate along with a relatively high hospitalization rate, Long Islanders have been advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to wear masks inside public places — though overall, the CDC's new guidelines for dealing with COVID-19 are more relaxed.

Not all colleges have chosen to abide completely by those guidelines, which were updated this month. At Nassau Community College in Garden City, unlike other SUNY campuses, indoor masking remains mandatory since being reimposed last May. And for now, students are still required to quarantine after a close contact exposure, depending on their vaccination status, spokeswoman Lindsey Angioletti said.

“However, the college is actively re-examining this policy in light of recent released CDC guidance," Angioletti said.

At Hofstra University in Hempstead, where all in-person, on-campus activities have fully resumed, masks are still required on campus shuttles and in the Student Health Service Office.

At Farmingdale State College and NCC, all students with an on-campus presence must participate in monthly surveillance testing if not boosted, while the unvaccinated are tested weekly.

At New York Institute of Technology — with campuses in Old Westbury and Manhattan — masks are “encouraged” indoors but required in the College of Osteopathic Medicine and School of Health Professions in laboratory and clinical settings. And at LIU's campuses in Old Brookville and Brooklyn, where all classes will be in-person, masking is optional but encouraged for large groups.

At Adelphi University in Garden City, students are urged to remain cautious.

“While we acknowledge the general fatigue people are feeling about regular mask-wearing, we recommend continued mask usage in crowded public places and at large gatherings to minimize potential contact with someone’s respiratory droplets,” Adelphi spokesperson Taylor Damian said.

Universities and colleges also are keeping an eye on a new evolving threat from monkeypox, which already has appeared on some campuses nationally.

“We have already provided one email to the community, alerting them to the monkeypox cases in our region and providing them with a list of symptoms so they can protect themselves,” said Ken Young, a spokesman for Molloy University in Rockville Centre. “We will provide further updates as needed.”

At Hofstra, spokesperson Karla Schuster said the university has launched a public education campaign "to inform our community about the risk posed by monkeypox and have set aside a small number of rooms in one of our residence halls for isolation, if necessary."

While COVID-19 protocols will tighten if infection rates surge and new variants emerge, vaccinations and new treatments have shifted the emphasis toward normalcy for now, officials said.

The relaxed rules follow the guidance of the CDC, which has recommended shorter periods of isolation following a positive COVID-19 test, and less stringent masking and social distancing rules. Some campuses put in place the more relaxed rules last spring and extended them for the fall.

Dr. K.C. Rondello, a public health expert at Adelphi University, said the CDC’s shift in guidance reflects a recognition that while “the acute COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end, endemic COVID-19 will be part of our lives for the foreseeable future.” Rather than peaks of infections with many people falling ill at once, infections will become a more constant and low-level presence in the population, he said. 

“The evolution in the CDC’s guidance anticipates that change and proposes a more sustainable mitigation strategy for the long haul,” Rondello said, adding that the updated policies provide ways to minimize risks while also minimizing “barriers to social and economic activity.”

“The CDC is acknowledging that while the pandemic is not yet through, communities and individuals can shift to an orientation in which COVID-19 less severely disrupts our everyday lives,” he said.

While students remained engaged during the pandemic, said Anna Zinko, Adelphi’s assistant vice president for student affairs, “We look forward to a full return to a traditional in-person campus life experience this fall.”

Welcome Week for incoming freshmen will be fully in-person, she said, rather than in a hybrid, or mixed in-person and digital delivery.

On many campuses, students who test positive now will be asked to isolate for at least five days — longer if symptoms persist — and wear a mask for an additional five days, while close contacts will be asked to wear a close-fitting mask for 10 days rather than quarantine, according to current CDC guidelines, university spokespeople said.

Remote instruction is still offered at higher rates than before the pandemic, but now as part of a largely in-person class load, administrators say.

The percentage of in-person classes versus online courses at Stony Brook has reversed from the height of the pandemic, gradually flipping from more than 80% online to about 75% in person now. That percentage will rise again next year, after renovations on a major lecture hall are completed and classes with large enrollments return there, Gatteau said.

In recognition of the pandemic’s impact on students’ learning progress and mental health, universities also have continued to expand tutoring and mental health services.

At Molloy, Young said, a well-received program introduced in the spring provides standby tutors in the campus library, along with scheduled online or in-person tutors and weekly tutoring. Mental health services now include virtual counseling via Zoom, and a partnership with a company to “provide text-based support during nontraditional hours and on weekends,” he said.

Patricia Munsch, interim vice president for student affairs at Suffolk County Community College, said the school used federal COVID-19 funding to add a third mental health counselor and is looking to hire two more to meet the growth in demand for services, including counseling and group stress reduction workshops in yoga, mindfulness and art therapy as an outlet for emotions.

Munsch, who also noted the college is introducing “micromesters” that allow students to complete a course in seven rather than 15 weeks, said COVID-19 plans tentatively make masking optional and end surveillance testing for the vaccinated. And, she said, clubs and student activities can now opt to meet in-person. 

Colleges and universities are welcoming students back for fall semester with COVID-19 protocols more relaxed than at any time since the pandemic closed campuses in March 2020.

On most campuses, vaccinations are mandatory but masks are now optional. Extracurriculars and welcoming ceremonies are in person. Crowd limits are gone in classrooms and dorms, and students exposed to the virus don't have to quarantine — they can wear masks instead.

Some COVID-19 testing, especially of those with medical or religious exemptions to vaccinations, remains in place.

“It is such a wonderful feeling — I feel like we’ve turned back to 2019, the way the college experience should be,” said Richard Gatteau, vice president for student life at Stony Brook University. “I will say, in society and everyone I see around campus, there is just not the same level of concern. If anybody wants to wear a mask, they are welcome to do so.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Colleges and universities, with few exceptions, are relaxing COVID-19 guidelines for the fall semester including optional indoor masking, shorter isolation periods for students infected with the virus, and masking instead of quarantine for students exposed to the virus.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cited availability of vaccinations and treatments to justify easing COVID-19 protocols but still recommends indoor masking in areas with high COVID transmission rates such as Long Island. 
  • Higher education institutions have strengthened tutoring and mental health services in response to the impacts of the pandemic and growing demand. 

Thousands of incoming freshmen recently moved into Stony Brook University dorms and took part in Welcome Week’s convocation, Casino Night and Movie Night, with few masks in sight and relief over the feeling of normalcy. 

Freshman Flor Zamalloa of Queens, wearing the red shirt worn by her class for convocation, said she was grateful she had not begun college when COVID-19 protocols were most restrictive. “There wasn’t any energy. I saw it in high school,” she said. “I feel like it’s very different now — there’s a new vibe to this school, and I’m glad that we’re here to revive it and I’m really excited for it.”

Colleges weigh infection rates, CDC guidance

However, COVID-19 infection rates on Long Island remain high, with the seven-day average test positivity rate at 8.02% as of Monday. Because of the high transmission rate along with a relatively high hospitalization rate, Long Islanders have been advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to wear masks inside public places — though overall, the CDC's new guidelines for dealing with COVID-19 are more relaxed.

Not all colleges have chosen to abide completely by those guidelines, which were updated this month. At Nassau Community College in Garden City, unlike other SUNY campuses, indoor masking remains mandatory since being reimposed last May. And for now, students are still required to quarantine after a close contact exposure, depending on their vaccination status, spokeswoman Lindsey Angioletti said.

“However, the college is actively re-examining this policy in light of recent released CDC guidance," Angioletti said.

Members of Stony Brook University's Class of 2026 listen to speakers...

Members of Stony Brook University's Class of 2026 listen to speakers during the freshman convocation at Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium on Aug. 17. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

At Hofstra University in Hempstead, where all in-person, on-campus activities have fully resumed, masks are still required on campus shuttles and in the Student Health Service Office.

At Farmingdale State College and NCC, all students with an on-campus presence must participate in monthly surveillance testing if not boosted, while the unvaccinated are tested weekly.

At New York Institute of Technology — with campuses in Old Westbury and Manhattan — masks are “encouraged” indoors but required in the College of Osteopathic Medicine and School of Health Professions in laboratory and clinical settings. And at LIU's campuses in Old Brookville and Brooklyn, where all classes will be in-person, masking is optional but encouraged for large groups.

At Adelphi University in Garden City, students are urged to remain cautious.

“While we acknowledge the general fatigue people are feeling about regular mask-wearing, we recommend continued mask usage in crowded public places and at large gatherings to minimize potential contact with someone’s respiratory droplets,” Adelphi spokesperson Taylor Damian said.

Universities and colleges also are keeping an eye on a new evolving threat from monkeypox, which already has appeared on some campuses nationally.

“We have already provided one email to the community, alerting them to the monkeypox cases in our region and providing them with a list of symptoms so they can protect themselves,” said Ken Young, a spokesman for Molloy University in Rockville Centre. “We will provide further updates as needed.”

At Hofstra, spokesperson Karla Schuster said the university has launched a public education campaign "to inform our community about the risk posed by monkeypox and have set aside a small number of rooms in one of our residence halls for isolation, if necessary."

While COVID-19 protocols will tighten if infection rates surge and new variants emerge, vaccinations and new treatments have shifted the emphasis toward normalcy for now, officials said.

The relaxed rules follow the guidance of the CDC, which has recommended shorter periods of isolation following a positive COVID-19 test, and less stringent masking and social distancing rules. Some campuses put in place the more relaxed rules last spring and extended them for the fall.

New COVID strategies for the long haul

Dr. K.C. Rondello, a public health expert at Adelphi University, said the CDC’s shift in guidance reflects a recognition that while “the acute COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end, endemic COVID-19 will be part of our lives for the foreseeable future.” Rather than peaks of infections with many people falling ill at once, infections will become a more constant and low-level presence in the population, he said. 

“The evolution in the CDC’s guidance anticipates that change and proposes a more sustainable mitigation strategy for the long haul,” Rondello said, adding that the updated policies provide ways to minimize risks while also minimizing “barriers to social and economic activity.”

“The CDC is acknowledging that while the pandemic is not yet through, communities and individuals can shift to an orientation in which COVID-19 less severely disrupts our everyday lives,” he said.

Newly arrived freshmen walk the grounds of Stony Brook University campus...

Newly arrived freshmen walk the grounds of Stony Brook University campus on Aug. 17.  Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

While students remained engaged during the pandemic, said Anna Zinko, Adelphi’s assistant vice president for student affairs, “We look forward to a full return to a traditional in-person campus life experience this fall.”

Welcome Week for incoming freshmen will be fully in-person, she said, rather than in a hybrid, or mixed in-person and digital delivery.

On many campuses, students who test positive now will be asked to isolate for at least five days — longer if symptoms persist — and wear a mask for an additional five days, while close contacts will be asked to wear a close-fitting mask for 10 days rather than quarantine, according to current CDC guidelines, university spokespeople said.

Remote instruction is still offered at higher rates than before the pandemic, but now as part of a largely in-person class load, administrators say.

The percentage of in-person classes versus online courses at Stony Brook has reversed from the height of the pandemic, gradually flipping from more than 80% online to about 75% in person now. That percentage will rise again next year, after renovations on a major lecture hall are completed and classes with large enrollments return there, Gatteau said.

A focus on mental health

In recognition of the pandemic’s impact on students’ learning progress and mental health, universities also have continued to expand tutoring and mental health services.

At Molloy, Young said, a well-received program introduced in the spring provides standby tutors in the campus library, along with scheduled online or in-person tutors and weekly tutoring. Mental health services now include virtual counseling via Zoom, and a partnership with a company to “provide text-based support during nontraditional hours and on weekends,” he said.

Patricia Munsch, interim vice president for student affairs at Suffolk County Community College, said the school used federal COVID-19 funding to add a third mental health counselor and is looking to hire two more to meet the growth in demand for services, including counseling and group stress reduction workshops in yoga, mindfulness and art therapy as an outlet for emotions.

Munsch, who also noted the college is introducing “micromesters” that allow students to complete a course in seven rather than 15 weeks, said COVID-19 plans tentatively make masking optional and end surveillance testing for the vaccinated. And, she said, clubs and student activities can now opt to meet in-person. 

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