Burwell talks college and COVID-19 ahead of return to in-person classes

Burwell discusses new masking requirements and reflects on lessons learned during the pandemic

Burwell talks college and COVID-19 ahead of return to in-person classes

President Sylvia Burwell appeared as a guest on a Washington Post Live event Thursday to discuss American University mask requirements, testing protocols and the start of in-person activities for the spring semester. 

“I think we are through the worst part of Omicron, certainly here in D.C.,” Burwell said.

Chancellor Robert Jones of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign joined Burwell at the event, titled “Coronavirus: Impact on Colleges.” Hosted by Washington Post anchor Libby Casey, the event came nearly a year after American University partnered with the UIUC’s Shield T3 for COVID-19 testing, a system Jones called “one of the most effective ones in the world.” 

Physical and social isolation: COVID-19 and mental health on college campuses

Prompted by a question from the audience, Burwell and Jones discussed the mental health effects of the pandemic on students. Burwell acknowledged the difficulty some students faced spending 10 days in isolation housing during previous semesters. 

“When these students are in hotel rooms alone, it’s not a great thing for their mental health,” Burwell said.

She said that AU recognized the disruptions in operations during the recent surge of COVID-19 in the district, such as limited on-campus dining options and reduced Metrobus service. Considering these issues and the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, AU decided to start classes online and let students decide where they would live at the start of the semester. 

“We wanted to make sure that parents and students had choices during a period where we think that many students would have [COVID-19], and they would have to go to isolation, that they could make the choice of being at home,” Burwell said.

Burwell also reflected on how operating online often made resources more accessible to students. Jones and Burwell agreed on the importance of virtual options for students seeking counseling services moving forward, something Burwell said the University expanded during the pandemic and continues to provide.

“The mental health piece is absolutely critical,” Jones said. “I think that’s something that we’re going to have to continue to innovate around.”

Both Jones and Burwell acknowledged how the pandemic has exacerbated existing mental health issues for college students, a widespread occurrence on campuses that is sometimes referred to as an epidemic. The University has recently pushed efforts to expand AU’s counseling services, such as the launch of YOU at American and providing Question, Persuade and Refer training. 

“It’s a place where we all need to pay a tremendous amount of attention,” Burwell said. 

Students’ demand for increased safety protocols, mandated testing for all

As classes resume following winter break, both AU and the UIUC continue to test unvaccinated students and staff multiple times per week. Neither school requires vaccinated individuals to test regularly after getting a negative result upon their return to campus. However, students at both schools have created petitions to mandate testing for all regardless of vaccination status, with each petition garnering well over a thousand signatures. 

Jones acknowledged that he had seen his school’s petition, but nevertheless voiced his support for his school’s current safety measures. 

“The data clearly shows: There’s no added value for testing on a regular basis people that are vaccinated,” Jones said. 

The UIUC student petition also calls for the school to provide 16 medical-grade masks per person so that students and workers have an adequate supply for the semester. Meeting this demand would make the school more in line with AU’s policy, which plans to provide KN95 masks to students throughout the semester. Burwell confirmed that KN95 masks are now part of the required face coverings at AU.

While Burwell did not specifically acknowledge the petition started by AU’s Disabled Student Union, she said contact tracing and regular testing of athletes are part of what she calls AU’s method of “risk-based testing.”

“We’ve made all of our decisions based on the health and safety of our community, achieving our mission with excellence, and making sure that we think about our contributions to the broader community,” Burwell said. 

Both Jones and Burwell expressed confidence in the safety of their campuses due to their high vaccination rates, which are above 90 percent for faculty, staff and students at both schools. Although the UIUC just recently announced a booster mandate, Jones said he expects "a very high level of response."

Burwell added that AU was able to safely hold commencement on Dec. 19 with over 5,000 families because of the school's protocols, saying the key part of creating a safe environment is "obviously vaccination and the boosters that need to follow."

Despite the challenges the Omicron variant has presented, Burwell expressed a positive outlook for the spring semester. She said her background as the secretary of Health and Human Services has instilled in her the importance of being aware of current data as well as listening to the needs of the community.

“We’re optimistic things will get better and we’re going to continue to change as things evolve,” Burwell said. 


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