An outdoor classroom set up on Tulane's campus in November 2020. (Philip Kiefer/The Lens)

As the COVID-19 delta variant surges in Louisiana, overwhelming local healthcare systems, New Orleans’ residential colleges and universities are preparing to resume in-person instruction for the fall semester.

Every school is emphasizing an on-campus, face-to-face experience for undergraduates, in contrast to last fall’s mix of virtual courses and socially distanced instruction. In spite of last year’s measures, outbreaks blossomed on campuses last fall and spring.

Last school year, Tulane University ran a massive test-and-trace operation, often testing undergraduates multiple times a week, and gave the clearest picture into the state of COVID on college campuses. Its outbreaks were often linked to off-campus events, and demonstrated the limits of physical distancing measures to fully contain COVID.

“You know, we’ve always had a problem with younger people who don’t see COVID-19 as a risk for themselves,” said Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Louisiana State University’s campus in New Orleans. About 70 percent of Louisianans between 18 and 29 have not received a single shot, and the age group has made up the highest proportion of COVID cases during the delta surge.

This fall, New Orleans colleges and universities are reporting vaccination rates higher than the city average, which is at about 60 percent for vaccine initiations and 53 percent for completed vaccinations. Private colleges have also mostly implemented vaccine requirements for students, while the University of New Orleans is seeking its own from the Louisiana Department of Health.

Vaccination rates could be boosted further by LDH’s new “Shot for 100” program, announced Friday afternoon, which will give college students $100 in exchange for being vaccinated. The program will be run through individual colleges and universities, and appears to be in response to a call from the Biden administration to roll out similar programs.

Still, some schools that report COVID cases have seen upticks. Xavier University reported a 13 percent test positivity rate in the first week of August, while Tulane’s has hovered between one and 2 percent for the past 10 days, with one spike to 12 percent last weekend. According to LDH data, the city as a whole had a 12.1 percent positivity rate for late July and early August. Tulane’s test positivity rate is consistently lower than the city of New Orleans because the school conducts so much testing, and for much of last year saw positivity rates under one percent.

But testing and isolation procedures vary widely, and given the Center for Disease Control’s uncertainty around COVID transmission via breakthrough infections, it’s possible that students or faculty will raise questions about in-person instruction.

Vaccine requirements

Students at Loyola University, Xavier, and Tulane are all required to be vaccinated before returning to campus. At Dillard University, students will need a vaccine in order to participate in most school activities, live on campus, or be employed on campus. Dillard will require vaccines by November 1st, and will give vaccinated students $500. It also plans to hold vaccine drives on campus.

The University of New Orleans does not yet have a requirement, but the University of Louisiana System, which includes UNO, has asked the Louisiana Department of Health to add COVID-19 vaccines to a list of required immunizations for students upon full FDA approval of one or more of the vaccines.

“We expect that FDA approval in the coming weeks,” wrote University of Louisiana System President Dr. Jim Henderson in an Aug. 2 letter.

As of early this month, Southern University at New Orleans officials said they would not mandate vaccinations for students or staff, but added that getting vaccinated is “strongly encouraged,” according to a report by WDSU.

Exemptions vary between the four schools that do require vaccines. At Loyola and Dillard, students can claim a medical or religious exemption. Students living on-campus at Xavier can’t receive exemptions, although other students can also request medical and religious exemptions.

Tulane also allows medical and religious exemptions, as well as an exemption for “personal beliefs.” Few students there appear to be opting out, though. Tulane spokesperson Michael Strecker told the Lens that “more than 95 percent of our students” were fully vaccinated.

A spokesperson for Loyola didn’t respond to questions, but in a letter to the student body sent Aug. 3, Tania Tetlow, the university’s president, said that 74 percent of students had been vaccinated. She said that 6 percent had “made the decision to opt out,” and another 20 percent had not yet responded to inquiries.

As of Aug. 2, the University of New Orleans estimated that 60 percent of students had been vaccinated. Adam Norris, a spokesperson for the university, said in an email to The Lens that the university arrived at the number by “cross-referenc[ing] data from LDH with its own student and employee databases.”

The difference in vaccination rates between UNO and Loyola and Tulane, Straif-Bourgeois said, “is clearly an indication that when you do mandate the vaccine, people get it. They want to go to school.”

Xavier and Dillard do not publish their vaccination rates online.

Employees at Tulane are also required to be vaccinated, and 92 percent have been, Strecker said. Dillard is requiring employees to be vaccinated by September 30, and is also offering a $500 incentive. And 75 percent of staff have been vaccinated at UNO — a higher rate than students.

Testing, quarantine, and isolation

Testing plans vary widely, as they have for much of the pandemic.

At Tulane, all undergraduates living on campus will need to be tested before arriving on campus, and again within a week of arriving. The university will then test “a random sample of graduate, undergraduate, faculty, and staff” twice a month. That’s a huge decline from last spring, when Tulane testing often made up around half of New Orleans’ weekly testing capacity.

Unvaccinated students at Dillard will undergo weekly COVID testing. UNO students are encouraged to get tested, but not required. Xavier doesn’t publish information on its testing protocols. Loyola’s published guidelines say that symptomatic and exposed students should get tested. 

For the most part, procedures following a positive test or an exposure are the same across campuses. At UNO, Tulane, and Loyola, anyone who tests positive will need to isolate. But after a confirmed exposure, vaccinated people will not need to quarantine if they test negative after exposure. Xavier’s protocol is less clear, though its website appears to indicate that vaccinated students won’t need to quarantine. 

CDC guidelines recommend that fully vaccinated people not quarantine after an exposure.

In-person instruction

Where the schools all agree is on an emphasis on in-person instruction. Many of the schools began planning for the return this spring, when COVID numbers remained low and the end of the pandemic looked like it could be in reach.

“I think we all [got complacent],” Straif-Bourgeois said. “I was fairly confident that we would be only in-person teaching at that point.” 

Of local universities, Dillard has the most clearly defined plan for returning to virtual instruction. According to a COVID plan provided to the Lens by Lauren Fox, a Dillard spokesperson, the university has divided the semester into a series of “benchmarks” for monitoring COVID resurgence.

According to the document, the university may return to online instruction for a number of reasons: mandates from government officials; an inability for campus health to manage isolation, quarantine, contact tracing, or testing; severe infections in the student body; sick faculty and staff; and “increased fear and anxiety that prevents students, faculty, and staff from engaging effectively.”

In that case, the school says it will refund students for room and board on a prorated schedule.

Last year, Tulane said that data from its test-and-trace apparatus indicated that students weren’t becoming infected in distanced or outdoor classrooms.

Now, Tulane is returning to regular rooms, though Strecker noted that “some classes and entire degrees are already fully online.” Strecker said that Tulane’s ventilation procedures, which include both an upgraded filter system and more frequent filter changes, would remain in place.

He deferred to state and city decision-makers on distancing measures, writing that “should public health officials reinstate social distancing requirements, we can quickly pivot and make necessary adjustments to allow distancing between students in classrooms.”

At UNO, Norris said that “in many cases, desks have been removed from classrooms to facilitate better distancing,” and that air filters had also been upgraded.

Every school is requiring masks indoors, in line with city and state mandates.

Universities with high coverage rates should feel fairly confident about in-person classes continuing throughout the year, Straif-Bourgeois said. 

“Having been fully vaccinated, and having a mask on while in the classroom, I think these are both very good measures to prevent transmission,” she said.

Even though LSU hasn’t mandated vaccines, “I’m actually one faculty member who decided to offer online and in-person simultaneously,” she explained, after being given the option to teach entirely online. “I really want to give students the option if they feel safe, and if they’re vaccinated, and they have the mask on. I’m fully vaccinated since February, and I feel really safe in that environment.”

But the key factor, she said, is vaccines. Without them, schools will need to pay for test-and-trace programs, which may not even be enough to contain fast-moving delta.