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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Omicron variant forces delays and virtual classes as Charlotte-area universities reopen

Tyneijah Williams at dorm.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Johnson C. Smith University senior Tyneijah Williams moved into her dorm Thursday as part of a staggered return for spring semester.

Johnson C. Smith University started moving students into dorms on a staggered schedule Thursday in preparation for in-person classes Monday. But before the day ended, the university switched plans, saying the surge of COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant made classroom mingling unwise.

UNC Charlotte, Queens University, Davidson College, Johnson & Wales University and Lenoir-Rhyne University had already announced they’ll either start spring semester with remote classes or push back reopening.

Officials at Johnson C. Smith, a historically Black university near uptown Charlotte, had hoped to buck the trend. The university is requiring a negative COVID-19 test for returning students, with booster shots required by Feb. 18.

Tyneijah Williams head shot.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
JCSU senior Tyneijah Williams

Tyneijah Williams stood in line for her test in her hometown of Minneapolis to get cleared for Thursday’s move-in. It was cold and inconvenient, she said, but worth it to come back for her final semester of senior year.

“I was so excited to get back I was just ready to get the test over and done with,” she said. Williams, a 22-year-old resident assistant , expected to sit down with classmates at 9 a.m. on Monday.

“I’m just going to class, making sure I have my mask — multiple masks — carry disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer,” she said. “Just making sure I’m prepared mentally and physically to be around everybody again. So I’m excited for it.”

Thursday afternoon, Vice President for Student Affairs Davida L. Haywood said officials had decided the precautions that had worked in the first semester would continue to keep students safe despite the omicron surge. But she acknowledged it’s a difficult, moving target.

Davida L Haywood JCSU.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Davida L. Haywood, vice president for student affairs at Johnson C. Smith University

“You know, this is a delicate dance for us,” she said. “I mean, part of this is that students are making an investment in a place that will prepare them for their future. On the flip side, you’re trying to balance that again with trying to keep them healthy and safe.”

Later that afternoon, JCSU officials decided the balance required online instruction for the first two weeks. The notice sent to students says they can keep moving in through the weekend, then work from their rooms to create a “COVID bubble” in hopes of resuming normal classes Jan. 24.

Here’s what area colleges and universities have announced as of Thursday.

UNC Charlotte will hold virtual classes from Monday through Jan. 24. Students who live on campus are encouraged to delay their return. Students and staff must be fully vaccinated, including a booster, or face weekly COVID-19 testing. Unvaccinated students who live on campus must produce a negative test to return to housing.

JCSU welcome back sign.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
A sign at Johnson C. Smith University reminds students to wear masks as they return for spring semester.

Queens University of Charlotte will start virtual classes Monday, with in-person classes scheduled to resume Jan. 18. The opening of residence halls was delayed, and everyone must have a negative COVID-19 test to return.

Davidson College will start the semester Jan. 24 with a “reading week” that includes assignments to be done independently. In-person classes will start Jan. 31, and campus arrival has been pushed back to Jan. 28. Vaccines are required, including boosters when eligible. Students must have a negative test within 48 hours of arrival.

Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte will reopen remotely Monday and start in-person classes Jan. 24. Lab courses will start in-person sessions on Jan. 18.

Lenior-Rhyne University in Hickory delayed its return to classes to Jan. 18. Athletes and residential students will be rapid-tested when they move in; everyone else must get tested two to three days before arrival. Vaccines are required, including boosters when eligible.

Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, will start classes Monday as scheduled. Returning students must provide proof of vaccination, have a negative test within five days of arrival or provide proof of COVID-19 infection within 90 days of arrival. Vaccination is “strongly encouraged.”

Johnson C. Smith University requires full vaccination for staff and students, including a booster by Feb. 18, unless they have a medical or religious exemption. Everyone must produce a negative COVID-19 test to return to campus, and everyone with a vaccine exemption faces weekly testing. Students can move into dorms on their scheduled dates, which run through Sunday, but all classes will be online from Monday through Jan. 24.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.