Quinnipiac University in Hamden is empty during the school's spring break on March 11. The school announced that students will not return to campus at the end of the recess, and classes will be conducted online in response to the spread of COVID-19. Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio/NENC

If the state of Connecticut wants its institutions of higher learning to return to normal in the fall, it’s going to have to get shots into the arms of the students. In order to bring students back to campus in the fall for a more normal and in-person experience, Gov. Ned Lamont must work closely with colleges and universities to ensure that all students are receiving the coronavirus vaccine as soon as possible.

This past fall, colleges were hotspots for the coronavirus. A study done by researchers at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Indiana University, the University of Washington and Davidson College, showed that as colleges and universities began welcoming students back to campus, their reopening led to a spike of about 3,000 new cases a day in the United States. The study found that reopening just one university added 1.7 new infections per day per 100,000 people in a county. Reopening colleges and universities to classes in person added 2.4 daily cases.

At the University of Notre Dame, there was a mere 0.28 percent positive test rate before classes started in August. Eight days after students returned to campus, the university showed a 16 percent positive test rate. At Auburn University, COVID-19 cases increased by five times from the first week of school to the second.

The Centers for Disease Control designate people attending and working at colleges and universities at increased risk of acquiring or transmitting COVID-19. According to a New York Times coronavirus tracker, there were more than 397,000 reported cases at over 1,800 colleges and universities across America in the fall semester. As of December, Connecticut had reported 4,757 cases at 20 schools, and that number has only grown since. While The New York Times’s survey is widely taken to be the most comprehensive account available, it likely represents an undercount of reported cases. “With no national tracking system, and statewide data available only sporadically, colleges are making their own rules for how to tally infections.”

The rise in cases on college campuses has also affected the surrounding communities. In January and February, as many institutions continued remote learning and kept their students at home, the total number of COVID-19 cases in Connecticut decreased across all age groups. While throughout March and April the infection rate has stayed low among residents 60 and older, the number of cases increased again among younger groups as institutions began to welcome students back to campus. This spike in cases coincides with waves of infections on college campuses such as the University of Connecticut.

In Connecticut recently, “residents in their 20s have been the most likely group to test positive for COVID-19, followed by those in their teens and those in their 30s.” Dr. Steven Wolf, chair of the emergency department at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, stated that young people are “exhibiting risky behavior, getting together in large parties, and we’re seeing the effects of spring break.” It is also believed that the B117 variant infects children and young people more easily than the original variant, making it even more important to vaccinate students at colleges and universities as soon as possible.

Experts suggest that this coming fall could become the season of a “new normal” in which the world slowly reopens, and vaccinating college students, faculty, and staff will be essential if Connecticut hopes to get there. These experts agree that at least 70-85% of the country needs to become immune in order for virus transmission to be substantially reduced. Unless students are vaccinated, there’s the likelihood of an explosion of cases and a repeat of the closures and quarantines of last year.

Dr. William Schaffner, professor of Preventive Medicine and Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, argues that if enough people are vaccinated, schools and colleges should be able to open with low risk this fall. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration’s leading infectious diseases expert, believes if we do it correctly, that “by the time we get to the early fall, we will have enough good herd immunity to be able to really get back to some strong semblance of normality.” By vaccinating students now, they will also be less likely to spread COVID-19 to their family members and communities upon their return home for the summer.

If we want to return to in-person learning in Connecticut, students on college campuses are an essential group to prioritize, especially now that scheduling for vaccinations is open for all individuals age 16 to 44. Under the governor’s leadership, colleges and universities can begin opening vaccine sites on campuses. Because colleges are already carefully monitoring infection rates and tracking infections among the student populations, they are in an excellent position to communicate with students and facilitate their vaccine sign-ups.

The goal should be to give shots to every eligible student on college campuses, including both residents and non-residents of Connecticut.

Officials at Rutgers University in New Jersey say that requiring vaccinations will help campuses make “an expedited return to pre-pandemic normal.” Vaccinating college students increases the likelihood that colleges will be able to hold more in-person classes in the fall, as well as reduce the spread of COVID-19 in students’ home communities when they return for the summer break. Connecticut must vaccinate them now.

Dayna Vadala is a student in the public policy and law program at Trinity College.

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