More Than 20 Colleges Requiring Students to Get COVID Booster for Spring as Omicron Looms

As the highly mutated Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread across the U.S., more than 20 colleges have announced new requirements for all eligible students to receive booster shots before the spring term. Though Delta is still dominant in the U.S. and much remains unknown about the threat Omicron poses, school officials weary about the new variant are taking preemptive measures to combat potential outbreaks.

Syracuse University in New York is one of the schools that is requiring booster shots before the spring term. It announced the measure last week, as well as an additional round of virus tests for students when they return to campus. Officials are also considering extending the current mask mandate.

Kent Syverud, the chancellor for Syracuse, said that the fall semester with few COVID-19 cases left school officials "feeling pretty good" about the upcoming spring semester, but "Omicron has changed that."

"It has made us go back and say, 'Until we know more about this variant for sure, we're going to have to reinstate some precautions,'" he said.

Boston University, the University of Notre Dame, the University of New Mexico and some small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast are among the schools also requiring booster shots. More say that they're weighing imposing the measure.

Omicron may already be driving surges at some U.S. schools. Cornell University moved final exams online and halted all campus activities Tuesday after more than 700 students tested positive over the course of three days. President Martha Pollack said in a campus message that there was evidence indicating Omicron was present in a "significant" number of the positive samples.

"It is obviously extremely dispiriting to have to take these steps," Pollack wrote. "However, since the start of the pandemic, our commitment has been to follow the science and do all we can to protect the health of our faculty, staff and students."

College Booster Requirements
In January, students at Stanford University are expected to be tested once a week and to wear masks indoors as requirements to attend in-person classes. Above, students walk on the Stanford University campus in Stanford, California, on March 14, 2019. Ben Margot/AP Photo

Hours after Cornell's announcement, Princeton University moved its exams online and urged students to leave campus "at their earliest convenience" amid a rise in cases.

Cornell and Princeton both report student vaccination rates of more than 98 percent.

Hundreds of colleges already require COVID-19 vaccines, and some say boosters are an obvious next step.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst was among the first to require the booster for students, saying all students must get shots unless they have medical or religious exemptions.

"The boosters are our best protection," said Jeffrey Hescock, co-director of the university's Public Health Promotion Center. "This demonstrates that we take public health seriously, and our students do too."

A recent online petition arguing against the booster mandate—citing 97 percent of students vaccinated and few on-campus cases—has attracted a few dozen signatures. But Emily O'Brien, a freshman at UMass, said the booster shot is a reasonable demand. She was already planning on getting a booster but said the mandate will probably increase uptake among students and prevent future lockdowns.

"If the past six months have shown anything, it's that lots of people won't bother to get vaccines—especially younger healthy people—if they don't have a requirement to," said O'Brien, 18, of Bedford, New Hampshire.

UMass will also require masks at the start of the spring term, and it's sending students home with a rapid test to be taken near the end of winter break.

Many colleges planning for potential disruption next semester are already contending with campus outbreaks that have arisen in the weeks after Thanksgiving.

Middlebury College in Vermont switched to remote instruction last week amid a surge in cases and urged students to leave early for winter break. Rising cases at the University of Pennsylvania led to a ban on indoor social events last Thursday.

On Friday, Tulane University in New Orleans warned that a campus spike includes "probable" cases of the Omicron variant, confirmed in at least one student last week. In response, school officials reinstated a mask mandate and expanded virus testing.

Other colleges that have extended mask requirements into next year include Wake Forest University, West Virginia University and Penn State.

Some other schools are already postponing the return to campus next month to avoid outbreaks. Southern New Hampshire University and DePaul University in Chicago recently said students will take classes remotely for two weeks before returning to campus after the holidays.

In a letter to students, DePaul's president, A. Gabriel Esteban, said the school will "cautiously start winter quarter so we can sustain a robust college experience the remainder of the academic year."

When students at Stanford University return to campus in January, they will be barred from holding parties or other big gatherings for two weeks. They'll also be tested once a week and continue to wear masks indoors as requirements to attend in-person classes. The measures aim to limit virus transmission without going too far in limiting the college experience, said Russell Furr, associate vice provost for environmental health and safety.

"This is something we've grappled with throughout the pandemic—how do we get a balanced approach?" Furr said. The goal is to avoid the strict lockdowns seen early in the pandemic, when student mental health "really suffered," he added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Booster Shot
As the highly mutated Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread across the U.S., at least 20 colleges have announced new requirements for all eligible students to receive booster shots before the spring term. In this photo, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is administered at a pop-up clinic offering vaccines and booster shots in Rosemead, California, on November 29. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images