Hiram College, pictured here, is one of only a few colleges in Northeast Ohio starting the semester remotely.

As yet another semester in the COVID-19 era begins, the majority of colleges in Northeast Ohio are planning a return to in-person campus offerings this spring amid the high number of cases related to the Omicron variant. The move comes after a fall semester where most saw a drop in full-time enrollment, mirroring a national trend.

But the tone around how to handle the pandemic and its myriad logistics seems to be shifting for college officials.

“How do we help our students, faculty and staff realize that they are going to have to live with this, that we all are going to have to live with this?” said Liz Okuma, vice president and dean of students at Hiram College.

Hiram is one of just a few local campuses that are beginning the semester remotely, though according to one count, roughly 80 colleges across the country adopted related plans.

Okuma said Hiram officials came to that decision after looking at a rise in coronavirus cases after students returned to campus, which has a full-time enrollment of about 1,000 students, after Thanksgiving. They figured that trend would continue after the new year began, so instruction will be delivered remotely for the first two weeks. Room and board fees, a lucrative income stream for colleges, will be adjusted this spring to reflect the time students aren’t on campus.

In addition, at Hiram, faculty, staff and students will be required to have a negative PCR test within three to five days of returning to campus or a positive COVID-19 test result from the last 90 days. This will allow officials to get a sense of “who is coming back to campus with what,” Okuma said.

College officials pride themselves on clear communication with their community, Okuma said, adding that many students seem relieved to begin this way.

“They don’t want to come and have an interruption,” she said. “They don’t want to come and go remote; they don’t want to have to go home; so if there’s a way that we can start as safe as possible and then not have to disrupt their semester later, they’re ready to do that.”

Case Western Reserve University is also starting the semester online for undergraduates, though students are currently on campus right now. The campus has 100% compliance with its vaccination mandate, president Eric Kaler said on a recent episode of the Crain’s Cleveland Business podcast The Landscape, yet positivity rates are clocking in at what’s believed to be an all-time high of around 10%.

“As omicron hits its peak, test result notifications will take longer than they once did,” CWRU officials wrote to students last week. “Health services will not be able to provide many of its routine services. And only those students on campus who share a bedroom — or are immunocompromised — will be moved to other isolation space. The numbers will be too high to responsibly do anything else.”

Other institutions across Northeast Ohio are readying for a return to in-person offerings. Now-common precautions, like wearing a mask and limited capacities, are set to continue.

There are other protocols, too, as at Kent State University, where dining services food is currently available for takeout only. Seating options are set to resume in February, though officials added an asterisk to its announcement: This date subject to change due to the ongoing surge of COVID-19 infections.

Leaders at Baldwin Wallace University recommend using more protective KN95 masks over cloth facial coverings. The University of Akron is highlighting free counseling services to deal with challenges leveled by the pandemic.

The pandemic and its reverberating effects have had a big impact on college students’ mental health. An Ohio State University survey found students’ rates of anxiety, burnout and depression increased from August 2020 to April 2021.

This return to campus, though, doesn’t come without pushback. The comments section got heated during a Cleveland State University town hall livestream with its president and provost on Thursday, Jan. 13.

“Huge disconnect between leadership and the actual student/student employee experience,” one student commented.

Out of the hundreds of messages left, many asked officials to consider a remote option. Students shared safety concerns, too. They wrote that mask enforcement is lax and called out the school’s vaccine requirement, which currently extends only to those who live in its residence halls.

But provost Laura Bloomberg pushed back, saying a “huge” number of students have said they’re glad to be returning back in-person.

“The students who chose an on-campus experience and want to be on campus also are voices that we need to hear, and that’s why we’re working so hard to create the safest possible environment,” she said.

A group of Kent State students created an online petition to ask the university adopt what they’ve called “Students Safe Six,” a list of requests that includes two weeks of remote instruction for the majority of classes, as well as implementing regular PCR testing. There’s a similar petition from CSU students, too.

And elsewhere in Ohio, the Columbus Dispatch reported that students and employees at Ohio University, Bowling Green State University, the University of Cincinnati and Miami University have filed lawsuits against current COVID-19 policies at those public institutions.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.