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Baker administration officials urge colleges to ease COVID-19 restrictions

Two Baker administration Cabinet secretaries late last week urged college and university presidents to eschew strict campus-wide COVID-19 protocols and instead put their institutions at the forefront of the state's transition of the pandemic "into an endemic, a highly contagious virus that is manageable and allows us to regain a sense of normalcy."

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and Education Secretary James Peyser warned in a letter of a "twindemic" of COVID-19 and social isolation and said that with "virtually all students and staff vaccinated," higher education institutions can lead the shift back to 'near normal' by rolling back COVID-related restrictions and investing in mental health services.

"Early in the pandemic, we made trade-offs, and veered on the side of remote learning and isolation. Overly strict protocols that inhibit any level of social interaction are counterproductive, at this time. Now is the time to reconsider these protocols to help promote a return to healthy social interactions, including: remote learning; restricting or discouraging group activities; overly aggressive surveillance testing; and mask type requirements," the secretaries wrote in Friday's letter, which was circulated Monday by state health and human services officials. "Colleges and universities should accelerate their efforts to transition back to 'near normal' conditions, which include focusing on individuals who manifest COVID symptoms and test positive for COVID, and especially those who are particularly at-risk for serious illness and hospitalization."

In an op-ed published Jan. 20 in The Boston Globe, professors from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Lowell campuses wrote that their students "need a return to normal instructional environments and an engaging college experience now" and that campuses should rethink COVID-19 mitigation measures.

"As faculty on the front lines in January 2022, we see a decline in student mental health that is driven, at least in part, by the policies of our own universities. We are sounding the alarm," they wrote. "We have seen firsthand the toll that pandemic-related restrictions at our Massachusetts universities are taking on students. A burgeoning student mental health crisis existed prior to the pandemic, but there is no doubt that two years of isolation, disconnection, and punitive restrictions have dramatically worsened this crisis."

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