Omicron variant spikes creates mixed protocols among local universities

Students voice concern over Point Park’s current guidelines

Written By Caitlyn Scott, Co-News Editor

Point Park and several local universities have continued to implement safety protocols due to the spread of the COVID-19 variant, Omicron, but some students have expressed concerns about the efficiency of guidelines in comparison to other campuses within the area.

The COVID-19 variant, Omicron, which was first identified by scientists within Botswana and South Africa back in November 2021, was announced as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO). In an article published by the New York Times on January 3, over a month after its initial discovery, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that Omicron accounted for 58% of all new infectious cases in the United States, and currently is the most common coronavirus variant in the country.

“I don’t think much could have been done to prepare for it [Omicron] other than what we are already doing with mask and vaccine protocols,” Alex Zahniser, a broadcast production and media management major, said. “Since we can’t fully anticipate how new variants will affect people, the best way is to just continue doing the things we are doing, as we know they help mitigate the spread of the virus.”

Within Allegheny County alone, Allegheny Health Director Debra Bogen announced on January 5 that the COVID-19 positivity rate had increased rapidly due to the spread of the Omicron variant, with a seven-day average positivity rate of 26.4%.

“This is a new high and, of course, very concerning,” Bogen said, according to the Trib.

Due to record high cases of the variant and students being fully in-person for the start of the Spring 2022 semester at Point Park, Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Affairs Keith Paylo said that many of the previous COVID-19 protocols have remained in place, with no current plans to change the current mask or vaccine policies for students attending face-to-face classes.

“The current university policy on mandatory masking remains in place, and masking continues to be regarded as an important tool in mitigating the spread of the virus,” Paylo said. “The university policy on vaccines remains in place. There is currently no plan to alter either of these policies.”

Despite the requirement of vaccinations for students, according to the “Operations Manual for Returning to Campus” that was updated as of Jan. 13, faculty and staff are still only “strongly encouraged” to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Along with the remaining mask policy and vaccine mandate, Point Park reimplemented changes to the current guest policy for residential students, limiting large gatherings for on-campus activities for the month of January and restricting elevator capacity to only five students at a time, according to the Operations Manual for Returning Students to Campus. While there are five designated spots on elevator floors to reinforce that rule, there has been no clarification provided to the student body as to how the university is limiting gatherings for the first weeks of the semester.

Although this may be the case for Point Park, other colleges within the area have utilized methods of online learning for the start of the spring semester, while others have updated policies on mask wearing and vaccination statuses to ensure safe returns to college campuses.

On Dec. 30, 2021, the University of Pittsburgh stated that due to the “arrival of the “highly transmissible omicron variant,” students and faculty would begin the Spring 2022 remotely, with classes remaining this way for the “first two and a half weeks of the semester,” according to a letter send from the universities Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann Cudd.

With being remote until in-person classes resume on Jan. 27, 2022, the University of Pittsburgh had also implemented on January 8 a “university-wide shelter-in-place” for students, stating that students who are arriving on campus or living off campus should shelter in place for “at least five days” and limit “all close contacts, wear a face covering and be physically distant at all times when around other people.”

Following the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University also decided to have the first two weeks of classes online, with the exceptions of certain courses that need to be taught physically.

On the school’s website, Carnegie Mellon currently requires “all CMU students, along with faculty and staff” are required to be vaccinated with a “WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccine and document their vaccination status or receive an approved exemption for medical, religious or strong moral/ethical conviction reasons.” The school has also updated the vaccine requirement, alerting students and faculty that booster vaccines will now be required.

When asked about how they felt about the protocols of Point Park in comparison to the surrounding universities in Allegheny County, multimedia major Tran Le said that there should be more guidelines to ensure students and faculty are safe on campus.

“I feel like there should be more when it comes to the COVID-19 protocols,” Le said. “There’s no social distancing in classrooms, even though cases are going up. I also feel like masks and wipes should be provided in every classroom and hallway, but it’s not.”

Along with wanting adjustments to the protocols, Le said she believes that Point Park should provide more options for classes for those who do not feel comfortable with being face-to-face.

“I think that Point Park should provide more hybrid options or online for the people who feel uncomfortable being in person,” Le said.

Along with Le, Zahniser said he believes that although Point Park has been as effective as possible with masks and contact tracing, more needs to be done regarding the requirement of vaccinations on campus.

“What doesn’t make sense to me is how students are required to receive vaccines, but teachers aren’t,” Zahniser said. “The university should make it so that it’s either required for everyone, or it isn’t required for everyone. There shouldn’t be a separation between teachers and students.”

Despite some student complaints, Dean Paylo said that the university has adapted well to the current precautions and continues to thrive during these unprecedented times.

“Throughout this pandemic, the entire campus has done an excellent job of following protocols and staying safe. As a result, we’ve been able to continue operations and focus on the educational mission,” Paylo said.

Duquesne University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Carnegie Mellon University and other universities have announced mixed protocol procedures.

Edinboro University, La Roche University, Penn State and West Virginia University announced fully in-person classes for the Spring 2022 semester, while Carlow University and Chatham University have utilized remote learning options for the start of the semester.