Macalester is looking almost the same as it did in the fall of 2019, before COVID-19 forced adjustments to every aspect of campus life. After over a year of limited in-person interactions, students are settling into shared dorms, starting classes and joining clubs and sports again.
With 98% of students and over 99% of employees fully vaccinated in accordance with Macalester’s vaccination policy, the college is bringing back much of its pre-pandemic practices. But Macalester — and the surrounding community — are not fully out of the woods yet.
Minnesota saw another wave of COVID-19 cases this summer with the onset of the delta variant. In the month before school started, Director of Covid Operations Paul Overvoorde and Medical Director of the Hamre Center Steph Walters announced plans to test the whole campus community and to implement an “opening period” with indoor masking required in most situations, hoping to mitigate the risk of infection.
“I think the emergence of the delta variant and the way that it has become the dominant variant that is spreading right now has changed thinking,” Overvoorde said. “I think the caution level has gone up.”
Since students began moving in and completing back-to-school testing on August 9, Macalester has recorded 10 cases of COVID-19 — three on-campus, three off-campus and two employees. Nine of the 10 were fully vaccinated; one was partially vaccinated.
Overvoorde noted that since students started coming to campus in mid-August, the school hasn’t seen any large outbreaks.
Macalester is following the Minnesota Department of Health’s testing and quarantine guidelines for people who have been in close contact with a positive COVID-19 case. Following those rules, everyone who tested positive is in isolation, and their vaccinated close contacts are required to get tested, wear masks in public and start isolating if symptoms set in. Unvaccinated close contacts are required to stay home and away from others in addition to getting tested.
With the vast majority of the campus community vaccinated, the college is not planning to implement regular surveillance testing, as it did last year. Macalester’s COVID-19 response team is looking into another round of testing a few weeks into the school year to get an idea of whether cases are spreading across campus, though no plans for this testing have been finalized yet.
Overvoorde stressed the importance of continuing to “layer” precautions in light of the high level of transmission sparked by the delta variant and the potential for breakthrough cases in vaccinated people.
“If you think about vaccinations being foundational, and then layering on top of that things like wearing face coverings, physical distancing, keeping people home when they’re not feeling well [and] good hand hygiene,” Overvoorde said. “Those are our different layers that are in place.”
Several of those “layers” were mandatory last year. There were caps on the number of students who could be in dorm rooms or public spaces, strict mask mandates and limits on in-person meetings and gatherings.
This year, however, the college opted to leave more up to choice. For example, the new policy allows professors to set guidelines in their classrooms as to whether or not people can remove masks when speaking; students are encouraged to keep their circle of close contacts small, rather than enforcing limits on the number of people in rooms or dorms.
“Requiring [more restrictions] puts that into more of a policing situation where people are going to be chasing after one another or reporting people to public safety,” Overvoorde said. “Based on what we saw last year… it seemed like the right thing to do to allow for those situations to have some ambiguity to them and allow people to make informed decisions.”
The college is recommending that students consider taking on some of those layers of precaution. Limiting the number of close contacts, for example, can limit the spread of the virus and makes contact tracing much easier.
For now, Macalester is keeping its indoor mask mandate in place through the opening period, which ends on Sept. 22. The college is monitoring the Covid status both on and around campus in making a decision about whether to change the masking rules at the end of the opening period.
Cases in the Twin Cities have remained fairly consistent over the last four weeks. Barring further spikes in the disease locally and on campus, in-person classes and activities are set to continue.
“I remain cautiously optimistic that we will be able to remain in person as long as we are taking care of each other and continuing to pay attention to those fundamentals of public health measures,” Overvoorde said.