As threats of COVID and monkeypox loom, college students hope for ‘a fresh start’

A 2026 banner is seen on the University of Pennsylvania's campus

The University of Pennsylvania celebrates the class of 2026 on move-in day, Aug. 23, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Students returning to college campuses this fall semester do so amid waning COVID-19 precautions, and the new threat of monkeypox.

That’s put pressure on colleges and universities to address two viruses that are likely to affect the on-campus population. To what degree, health experts don’t yet know.

But for many students and their parents, they’re determined to remain cautiously optimistic for more normalcy in their college experience this year.

“It feels like it’s a fresh start on things,” said Will Goelz, who moved into his freshman dorm room Tuesday at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Will Goelz is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Many universities continue to require COVID vaccination, but are dropping mandatory masking and entry testing requirements. A majority of classes are scheduled to take place in person as opposed to virtual or hybrid instruction.

Goelz took a picture in front of the LOVE sign on UPenn’s campus with his parents and younger siblings. The family drove to Philadelphia from their home in Michigan.

Megan DeWindt takes a photo of her son, Will Goelz, and his sister on the University of Pennsylvania's campus
Megan DeWindt takes a photo of her son, Will Goelz, and his sister after Goelz moved into his University of Pennsylvania dorm on Aug. 23, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“There was a whole process of how to move in, to test beforehand [for COVID] and quarantine if you hadn’t,” said Megan DeWindt, Goelz’s mother. “I felt like we’d been very informed.”

Some schools are still finalizing how they’ll address possible monkeypox cases, which could require isolation, testing, treatment and vaccination.

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In the U.S., several universities, including Penn State and West Chester, have confirmed at least one student case of monkeypox. More than 15,900 cases have been identified nationally, and outbreaks so far have disproportionately affected gay and bisexual men and their sexual networks.

UPenn freshman Hannah Hayman had already been in the city for a month having come early with other international students. She was giving a campus tour to her parents, who had just flown over from the family’s home in Wales, a part of the United Kingdom.

“Moving to a different country, that’s overwhelming as it is,” Hayman said. “I can actually come to campus, live in my dorm and just have a bit of a social life outside as well and not be restricted by COVID again.”

Penn student Hannah Hayman with parents Nikki and Nigel
Penn student Hannah Hayman with parents Nikki and Nigel, who came from the UK to visit with their daughter as she begins nursing classes on Aug. 23, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

But she added that if COVID cases began to rise this semester, she was prepared to follow more intense precautions.

“If they ask you to wear masks, you know, it’s just something good to do,” Hayman said.

Concern and fear for COVID, and monkeypox, wasn’t completely absent from the minds of students and families on campus this week.

Alexies Rivera-Garcia said while it feels good to be taking more classes in person again, the risks of infection are still present.

“People still show up to class in masks and that’s fine,” he said. “I’m usually also one of the people showing up to class in a mask and stuff.”

Penn student Alexis Rivera-Garcia with parents Jasida and Luis
Penn senior Alexis Rivera-Garcia (center) was a first-year student when the pandemic began, and is looking forward to full-time, in-person classes this year. His parents Jasida and Luis insist he wears a mask indoors. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Rivera-Garcia, who is from Puerto Rico, had just started his freshman year at UPenn when the pandemic hit midway through. Now as a senior, he helped welcome freshman students this year.

There were a couple of early COVID cases among the incoming students, and he said there were some logistics that still needed to be worked out.

“There weren’t really policies in place for how we get them food, how they isolate, how they get tested,” Rivera-Garcia said. “I understand they’re being a lot more relaxed with it now and that’s fine and all, but it also was a little jarring to see that.”

Here are the latest COVID-19 and monkeypox guidelines and information from colleges and universities in the greater Philadelphia region:

Philadelphia and Pennsylvania

In an update for the new school year, Drexel University stated that it will require an initial series of COVID-19 vaccination for students, faculty and staff. There’s no requirement for boosters. Beginning Sept. 6, masking is recommended for all indoor spaces and required in campus health settings. Students with COVID will need to isolate in their rooms. The university is asking anyone with monkeypox symptoms to avoid close contact with others, call the Student Health Center and ask for a telemedicine appointment. Students should isolate while awaiting test results.

“If you live in a shared space on campus, Student Health will work with Housing to coordinate accommodations,” officials stated in an advisory.

First-year students at the University of Pennsylvania gather on the school's campus
First-year students at the University of Pennsylvania gather on the school’s campus on Aug. 23, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The University of Pennsylvania will offer on-campus COVID-19 testing and urge students to self-test multiple times at home when they suspect an exposure. Masks are optional on campus, but required in health care settings. The university will continue to conduct contact tracing for positive cases. UPenn requires COVID-19 vaccination, which includes a booster.

In monkeypox guidance, the university states that it will have testing options for people who develop a rash or lesions. People who test positive will need to isolate in their rooms, dorms or homes.

“There are a limited number of isolation rooms available for students who live on-campus. On-campus students will be required to move to an isolation room, as CDC considers college dorms to be congregate living settings in regards to monkeypox,” university guidance states.

Masks are not required on West Chester University’s campus, but they are in health care settings. Students can get tested for COVID-19 at Student Health Services. People who become ill must isolate and notify the university.

The university’s monkeypox protocols say that students who have symptoms or a suspected exposure should call Student Health Services. People who test positive must isolate off campus, but if that’s not possible, housing accommodations will be made.

Delaware

The University of Delaware is instituting a temporary two-week mask requirement in an attempt to get ahead of a potential spike in COVID-19 transmission at the start of the semester. The requirement is in place from Aug. 30 to Sept. 9

As for monkeypox, the university is working with the Delaware Division of Public Health and federal agencies to address monkeypox cases.

“We do have testing capability on a campus at our student health services (clinic),” officials said in a statement. “We are asking those [who test positive] who live within driving distance to return home, but there are a limited number of isolation spaces on campus for those who cannot.”

New Jersey

Face coverings are mandatory in indoor teaching spaces, libraries and clinical settings at Rutgers University this fall, according to the school’s latest COVID-19 guidance. Students should also be vaccinated, with booster shots when eligible.

In a monkeypox advisory to community members, the university has instructed people with symptoms to stay home and contact a health provider for testing and possible treatment or vaccination.

“At this time, there is no need to take special precautions to avoid monkeypox unless you experience symptoms,” the advisory stated.

Rowan University officials say they’re still formulating their monkeypox plans and have not yet sent out a letter to the community as official move-in does not begin for another two weeks. Classes begin the week after Labor Day.

“The thrust of our approach is education. We will educate our students about the illness and provide tips and resources,” a university spokesman said in an email.

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