On April 5, St. Olaf’s COVID-19 Response Team released a campus-wide email stating that the campus would be shifting from a yellow alert level to a green alert level effective the following day. This meant that for all students, faculty, and staff, masks would become aoptional indoors, testing would be provided for only those with symptoms, and visitors up-to-date on their vaccination would be allowed on campus.
This decision was made following guidance from the CDC and St. Olaf’s leading epidemiologist, which presumably allowed for this quick shift after students returned from spring break. This re-loosening of COVID-19 restrictions on campus mirrors changes that have taken place in some parts of the country – the Twin Cities lifted its mask mandate on Feb. 24 alongside other major cities. And similar measures are taking place around the world. Just last month, countries like the U.K and Switzerland dropped many, if not all, COVID-19 measures including incoming traveler testing, masking in public places, and proof of vaccination.
The post-spring break return to normalcy has been welcomed by many members of the community. But some students, especially those who are still considered at high risk, have been more reluctant to eschew their masks. In this sense a shift to pre-COVID-19 times may be considered a bit premature, especially with the emergence of the BA.2 Omicron sub-variant. As well, some experts have warned that a possible surge is on its way, even as cases start to wane after a period of increase in the late winter months of January and February. Recent federal guidance reflects this continued caution; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended the federal mask mandate for airports, planes, and public transit until May 3 when the mandate was originally set to end on April 18.
For St. Olaf, numerous updates were communicated before official shifts between alert levels, and since the beginning of the year, campus-wide baseline testing had been conducted twice for each student, staff, and faculty member after breaks. As of this week, there is no baseline testing scheduled. However, the COVID-19 response team advised students leaving campus for Spring break to test themselves 24-hours before returning, putting the trust and responsibility in the student body.
This shift has, however, opened up on-campus opportunities such as the rescheduled Pause Dance and Admitted Students Day, to name a few. On April 9 and 10, over 400 visitors are expected for the 3rd and 4th Admitted Students Days of the year, raising questions as to what measures would be in place in order to mitigate possible COVID-19 transmission. Before the off-campus outbreak occurred last month, with close to 200 cases reported, the St. Olaf Admissions Office was preparing to implement a mask-optional policy for visitors. This gave tour guides and families the choice to mask or not. For this weekend, a mask-optional policy will again be implemented. There may be a risk to having so many outside visitors come to campus, yet it provides current high school seniors the opportunity to finally be able to visit college campuses and make a confident decision for their futures.
Looking ahead towards the rest of the school year, the St. Olaf COVID-19 Response Team is staying optimistic. Their goal, as of right now, is to remain at the Green Alert Level through the rest of the semester. Like many around the world, they hope that a “new normal” is on its way.