In an email to the Hopkins community on Jan. 14, the University announced several modifications to COVID-19 policies for the spring semester in response to the omicron variant.
University mask guidelines have been updated to require the usage of N95s, KN95s or cloth masks worn over surgical masks. According to the administrators, a variety of types of masks will be distributed starting next week.
“Whatever kind of University-approved mask you use, the most important thing is to wear it consistently and properly — with a tight fit and covering both the mouth and the nose,” they wrote.
Senior Michael Lin expressed approval of the changes in masking policy and testing requirements, citing the University’s recently announced booster shot mandate.
“I appreciate that they want us to double mask, but at the same time, masks are still resources and worth money, so when it gets better, it would be good if the protocols are reduced again,” he said. “Last spring, the thrice-a-week testing was too much, so twice a week seems sufficient, especially now that everyone is vaccinated and will get boosted to a degree.”
In an email to The News-Letter, Vice President for Communications Andrew Green clarified how the University is making masks accessible to affiliates.
“On Homewood Campus, masks will be available at testing sites and the Student Health and Wellness Center with more locations to come,“ he wrote. “We are permitting individuals to pick up two masks per person per week, and we believe we will have ample supply to meet demand for the remainder of the semester.”
Kristin Brig-Ortiz, a member of Teachers and Researchers United (TRU), the University’s unofficial graduate student union, expressed the organization’s concern over the risks of in-person activity in an email to The News-Letter.
“We are happy to see that the University has decided to supply all campus personnel with KN95/N95 masks, and that [the administration] are continuing to have campus workers and students follow clear social distancing policies,” she wrote. “We have continuing concerns about exposure risks, particularly for immunocompromised persons and those working in close proximity with others for long periods of time.”
Undergraduate students living in on-campus housing will be tested immediately upon return and quarantine in their rooms until they receive a negative result.
In a follow-up email, Vice Provost for Student Health and Well-Being and Interim Vice Provost for Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger explained that all students will be required to take a saliva-based PCR test scheduled through MyChart upon return to campus. Those who return between Jan. 21 and Jan. 23 must receive a rapid antigen self-test — available between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. at the Ralph S. O’Connor Center for Recreation and Well-being or Peabody dining hall — in addition to scheduling a saliva-based PCR test.
Shollenberger noted that students who arrive outside the hours of 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on these days must self-quarantine in their rooms until they can pick up a rapid antigen self-test. Off-campus students must begin twice-weekly testing upon arrival in Baltimore and quarantine in their off-campus residences until testing negative.
Isolation housing capacity has been expanded, and undergraduates living on-campus will be prioritized in receiving these accommodations. Those living off campus cannot be guaranteed isolation housing but may receive it if there are available spaces and their living conditions necessitate it.
According to Lin, the University’s inability to guarantee isolation housing for off-campus students is unfair.
“By only prioritizing on-campus students for isolation housing, [administrators] are neglecting this subpopulation because we’re students of the University still,“ he said. “We can’t just stay in our room because we do need to sustain ourselves and make food, which happens in a shared living space. If you’re in isolation, the University does provide food for you, so it seems to be a bit of a negligence in that regard.”
Shollenberger noted that students living on-campus may still have to quarantine in their rooms.
“Please note we have limited capacity, and if we experience a major surge, students may be required to isolate in their residence hall rooms,“ he wrote. “In this case, we will prioritize university-provided isolation rooms based on the type of room in which the student is living; for example, we may give priority to those in doubles versus those in suites where students have their own room.”
The administrators maintained that those who are fully vaccinated and boosted are no longer required to quarantine after meaningful COVID-19 exposure in accordance with changes in the CDC recommendations. Those who are not fully vaccinated and boosted will be required to quarantine in their rooms after exposure.
Brig-Ortiz wrote about TRU’s concerns surrounding this change in policy.
“The University's new policy explains that vaccinated personnel are 'no longer required to quarantine after a meaningful contact,' even though the Omicron variant often breaks through vaccines and even boosters,” she wrote. “Even with regular testing and updated masking requirements, instructing people not to quarantine after coming into contact with a known COVID-19-positive person will lead to disease spread in the workplace, which Hopkins has repeatedly said does not occur and places employees at increased risk of infection.”
The University’s email also noted that manual contact tracing will cease to occur and an automated system will be implemented, where those who test positive must self-report their contacts, who will then be informed by email.
Dining Services and Events
Residential dining services will transition to grab-and-go operations, and grab-and-go food at events is currently suspended. According to University officials, nonacademic indoor events with more than 50 people will require special permission through Feb. 6.
Freshman Kelzzy Buenaventura voiced her disappointment about the elimination of in-person dining options in an email to The News-Letter.
“I’m disheartened about the grab-and-go dining policy. One of my favorite parts of the week is going to late night at the Fresh Food Café, eating the pancakes, and simply enjoying my time with my friends there,“ she wrote. “With the grab-and-go policy, we won’t be able to do that anymore.”
Lin, who is the president of the Chinese Students Association (CSA), reflected on how the policy changes pose challenges for student organizations and event planning.
“We’re currently planning Lunar Banquet, which is [the CSA’s] big event for the spring semester. We were initially planning grab-and-go food for our in-person event, but... we have to now think of other ways to entice our event to students,” he said. “It’s not really the University’s fault... It’s just frustrating because this is a necessary evil, unfortunately. As student organization leaders, we need to keep our attendees safe.”
Shollenberger added that the University is asking students not to participate in informal social gatherings during their first two weeks on campus. He highlighted that the Ralph S. O’Connor Center for Recreation and Well-being and libraries will remain open, and scheduled athletic events will continue. Indoor athletics will not have spectators at this time.
In an email to students living on campus, Housing Operations officials stated that residents of University housing will not be permitted to have guests or access other residence halls until Feb. 6.
According to the University’s email, the period of increased workplace flexibility has been extended until Feb. 7 at the discretion of every division of the University.
“Our divisions will provide temporary adjustments as needed to faculty whose ability to teach in person is impacted by the pandemic, owing to circumstances such as unexpected school closures and other child care disruptions, the need to care for family members, etc.,” the email said. “Faculty will continue to take steps to support students in keeping up with their coursework if they are required to isolate or quarantine.”
Green clarified that guidelines may differ among divisions, which will directly inform their students about their specific policies.
Senior Daniella Needleman voiced frustration with the possibility of flexibility protocols leading to more classes being held online.
“This past semester, I had a 12-person class online, and professors kept making classes and lab meetings online all the time for minor inconveniences. Now that there’s an option for professors to make things online, professors take advantage of it a lot,” she said. “It makes you feel that they don’t care about teaching because there’s a very clear difference in the quality of the education when it’s in person versus online.”
When reached out to for comment, the Hopkins Sit-In directed The News-Letter to a Twitter thread on the account of Coalition Against Policing by Hopkins (CAPH) for its response. The Sit-in is a member of CAPH, a coalition consisting of local community organizations.
“In a University-wide email, [administrators] said Omicron results in fewer hospitalizations,” one tweet reads. “Maryland data clearly show that the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths are at the highest ever throughout the pandemic, despite Maryland now being 72% fully vaccinated.”
According to the Maryland Department of Health, hospitalization numbers are hitting their highest peak since the beginning of the pandemic, and though current studies suggest that the Omicron variant results in lower risks of hospitalization and severe illness than other variants, hospitals around the country are still experiencing a surge in COVID-19 patients due to the strain’s transmissibility.
The Hopkins Sit-In elaborated on its concerns with the University's messaging in an email to The News-Letter.
"The University’s email didn’t say the risk of hospitalization given you have Omicron is lower than the risk of hospitalization given you have delta,” it wrote. “Saying ‘Omicron... leads to fewer hospitalizations’ without mentioning that deaths and hospitalizations are at their highest peak due to Omicron’s contagiousness is misleading and extremely dangerous messaging.”
The Sit-In also noted that the University did not address the potential impacts of long COVID-19 resulting from Omicron in its email.
In its twitter thread, the CAPH account claimed that the University is hoarding personal protective equipment (PPE) from the community, including tests and masks, which perpetuates the spread of COVID-19.
The CAPH thread called for an end to in-person learning and a consideration of the risks for those who require this in its tweets.
“This is medical apartheid,” it states. “At least 57 Baltimore City Public Schools have switched to virtual learning, while Hopkins chooses to spend money and time opening an ice rink instead of aiding the community they [of the University] have been continuously harming for years.”
The CAPH thread also asks for those with access to PPE from the University to donate to the surrounding community.
“A call to action: If you have access to any free testing and PPE resources from Hopkins, please donate as much of them as you can to neighbors without access,“ it states. “You can also donate to @joysfreestore or @BTUBaltimore by emailing email@example.com.”
Michelle Limpe contributed reporting to this article.