The College conducted mandatory comprehensive testing of students between Monday, Nov. 29 and Wednesday, Dec. 1. As of Wednesday, Kenyon’s COVID-19 Dashboard records two positive results out of 460 tests. Reports of the new omicron COVID-19 variant, however, have members of the Kenyon community concerned about the future.
In addition to mandatory testing — which excludes those who tested positive since Aug. 31 2021 — the College raised campus activity restrictions to Level 3 on Friday, Nov. 26. Assuming the College sees a low positivity rate after this round of testing, these restrictions will be lifted on Friday, Dec. 3.
In accordance with these guidelines, Peirce Dining Hall has only offered takeout options for students, and gatherings are limited to a maximum of 10 people. However, since this activity level is precautionary, many previously scheduled activities are allowed to take place with proper safety measures. Classes remain in person, and indoor registered events — like athletic practices, lectures, rehearsals and performances — will continue as scheduled. The College has requested that any meeting or event not required to be in person be conducted remotely.
According to COVID-19 Steering Committee Chair Drew Kerkhoff, the first day of testing recorded 679 registered tests.
“Hopefully, we will have very high participation and low to zero positivity, so we can safely return to campus activity level 1 on Friday,” Kerkhoff wrote in an email to the Collegian.
Director of Health and Counseling Christopher Smith expects to have comprehensive testing data by Friday, Dec. 3, and hopes that the results will allow the College to end Level 3 restrictions.
In a news bulletin sent on Sunday, Nov. 28, the COVID-19 Steering Committee wrote that the goal of these restrictions is to end the semester without any disturbances caused by an outbreak on campus.
“The last two weeks of the semester are already a time of potential stress, and we do not want that to be compounded by disruptions due to COVID-19,” the Committee wrote.
Despite optimism regarding the current levels of COVID-19 on Kenyon’s campus, the new omicron variant may cause complications in the pandemic’s trajectory. The variant was first detected in South Africa on Nov. 24 and identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a potential variant of concern two days later. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the first omicron-variant case in the United States was detected on Dec. 1 in California. In response, the U.S. has imposed travel restrictions on eight countries in southern Africa.
President Sean Decatur, a former professor of chemistry and biochemistry, said that there is still very little information about the omicron variant.
“It’s going to be a couple weeks before we actually begin to get answers to questions about transmissibility or degree of illness or effectiveness of vaccines or other treatments,” he said. “I think that [it’s] still just too early to know.”
Decatur encouraged the Kenyon community to receive a COVID-19 booster shot in order to ensure that the semester ends as safely as possible. The CDC currently recommends booster vaccinations to everyone over the age of 18 who received their initial doses.
Despite the lack of information, reports of this new variant have some students concerned about the spring semester, particularly those planning to study abroad. Bridget McCarthy ’23 is currently hoping to go abroad next semester to Tokyo, Japan, but is worried that omicron may change their plans. They originally planned to go abroad in the fall, but the Japanese government’s border restrictions allowed only Japanese citizens to enter the country because of COVID-19. As a result, McCarthy was denied a student visa.
“There was a glimmer of hope at the beginning of November as they began processing visas for business and education, but things have quickly changed with omicron,” they said.
McCarthy does not expect to receive a visa in time for their planned departure in late March. They have enrolled in classes on campus for next semester in the meantime.
Director of the Center for Global Engagement Marne Ausec said that her concerns never went away completely, and noted that it is impossible to predict what the coming months will look like.
“There is so much that we need to learn about this new variant of concern, and that is going to take some time,” Ausec wrote in an email to the Collegian. “I can say that providers have been in touch with us, both about the end of this semester and what might happen next semester. I’m grateful for their partnership.”
Ausec also said that a number of students have reached out with concerns about the potential impact of the new variant on their semester abroad. She expects that programs will generally remain open, albeit with restrictions.
“I do think that programs may close, but my gut feeling is that many programs will remain open-with modifications and restrictions,” Ausec said. “A lot will depend on what restrictions/closings host countries put into place.”