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As UMass students return, COVID regulations are few but caution still advised

A vending machine at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is one way for students to get COVID-19 antigen tests.
Jill Kaufman
A vending machine at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is one way for students to get COVID-19 antigen tests.

Officials at area colleges plan to handle the COVID-19 pandemic this school year with fewer restrictions in place.

Masks are optional at UMass Amherst, where about 13,000 students moved into dorms over the weekend.

Students who get COVID are urged to go home. If they can't, they and their roommate need to figure out what's best, said Ann Becker, the director of public health at UMass. The school is not providing rooms this year for isolation.

"I understand the need to still be cautious, and I encourage people to do that, you know, wear masks whenever [they] feel at risk," Becker said.

But Becker and health officials at other schools are optimistic about the year ahead.

Every new booster has changed the landscape for the better, Becker said, though there's not a magic bullet for this phase of the pandemic.

"It's multiple tools. It's the cooperation and the collaboration of everybody on campus," Becker said.

That includes being aware that if you feel sick, Becker said, take a rapid antigen test. She said the university has an ample supply.

"They can get them through vending machines we have right in the center of our campus that are stocked with them. We have our public health promotion center that will be open starting 9 to 4 Monday through Friday," Becker said.

The school's health services will also provide PCR tests as needed.

"We're in this new phase and, sure, there are unknowns here. But with the amount of vaccinations and the decreasing severity of Omicron in the face of a highly vaccinated population, we really do feel like it's going to be okay," Becker said.

With this in mind, Becker said the campus can focus on students' other public health needs. High on the list, especially with the trauma of the pandemic, are students' social and emotional health.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."