Colleges in Undervaccinated Areas Sweat a Return to Campus
(Bloomberg) -- A summer surge in Covid-19 cases is complicating return-to-campus plans for U.S. colleges, particularly for schools in undervaccinated areas or where state laws bar them from implementing key mitigation measures.
All schools face a delicate task in updating pandemic-related protocols amid the spread of the delta variant. The young people they serve have been relatively slow to take up vaccines, with only 45% of 18-to-24 year-olds fully vaccinated, compared to 59% of all eligible Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of those students will be looking to let loose in social settings after a year of Zoom school.
But certain colleges have it especially hard. At Clemson University in South Carolina, state rules prohibit it from requiring masks or vaccines, and like many public schools across the South, it is located in an area where vaccination rates are low overall. Still, it plans to operate its facilities at full capacity, offering guidance for students that “strongly encourages” vaccination and says masks are “strongly recommended'' in university buildings. Physical distancing guidelines will not be in place.
That has Katelynn Bortz, 20, worried about her school’s football games, student events and large lecture halls. Even the small political science and women's leadership seminars she’s taking this fall are newfound sources of anxiety.
"If I'm sitting in a room with 20 people, I don't know, realistically, how many are vaccinated,” said Bortz, a Clemson junior. "I'd feel a lot safer if I did."
Hundreds of public colleges have their hands tied by similar new laws that prevent them from enacting mask mandates or vaccine requirements. When calling for lawmakers to reconsider such bans, the American College Heath Association and almost 30 higher education associations called the laws a “recipe for disaster.”
Even when campuses were more sparsely attended last year, “We saw outbreaks,” said Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the health group's Covid-19 task force. “And now we’re getting everyone back at full tilt. What do they expect? It's very concerning.”
State schools that cannot mandate vaccines or masks are instead trying to incentivize students to take these steps. Clemson and Shawnee State, a public university on Ohio’s southern border, are offering rewards. Until Aug. 30, Shawnee students who provide their vaccine records can qualify for a weekly drawing for prizes such as ear buds, wireless speakers or access to a convenient parking space. Students who live on campus will be eligible for expedited move-in. At least 250 schools in a half-dozen states are using similar tactics, according data from the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College.
Court challenges to state rules are also keeping college administrators on their toes. In Arkansas, where Governor Asa Hutchinson has expressed regret about signing a law banning mask mandates, a judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of that policy. This week, the Arkansas State University system’s board of trustees authorized its chancellors to require face coverings on campuses.
Meanwhile, in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has stood firm on the state’s ban on mask mandates, leaving some colleges to skip policies they would otherwise adopt.
“If the governor says that we can require masks, then I feel certain that we will require masks in all buildings,” said Rebecca Bell, executive director of institutional development at Midland College in Texas. “If the governor says that we can require vaccines, then we would definitely do that also.”
In what could be a harbinger of what’s to come at other schools in areas hard-hit by the delta variant, the University of Texas at San Antonio said Wednesday it would move to mostly online learning for the first three weeks of the semester.
The stakes are high for colleges as they aim to craft their Covid-19 policies. In addition to the obvious health and political risks, there is potential financial fallout.
“Those colleges and universities that cannot mandate the vaccine must be ready to expect lower enrollment,” said Christopher Marsicano, assistant professor of educational studies and public policy at Davidson College. “Many of those institutions depend on enrollment for revenue.”
Colleges with more freedom to set their own rules also face difficult decisions in a fast-moving situation. Schools including Yale University, Princeton University and Duke University had mandated Covid-19 vaccines months ago for all students and employees coming to campus. But, recently, as the variant spread, they added mask requirements for indoor spaces.
Some schools, such as Brown University, will also have a regular Covid-19 testing regimen. In July, Brown said it would test vaccinated students and employees every 14 days and unvaccinated people — those with exemptions or who are in the process of getting vaccinated — every seven days. By early August, it had revised its plan, narrowing the testing intervals.
“We continue to make decisions to reduce or increase testing aligned with public health conditions,'' said spokesperson Cass Cliatt.
Another school, West Virginia Wesleyan College, is charging a $750 fee to students who don’t provide proof of vaccination by Sept. 7, which it intends use to cover the cost of surveillance testing, contact tracing and other protective measures.
Beyond the logistics and cost of testing programs, colleges across the country have myriad pandemic-related policy questions to weigh.
“We have a dashboard with a thousand dials that will have to be adjusted every day depending on the conditions on campus, in the community and nationally,'' said Duke spokesperson Michael Schoenfeld. Last week, the university moved its convocation that is expected to draw 5,000 freshman and their parents from an indoor arena to an outdoor venue.
Marsicano, who directs Davidson's Crisis Initiative, said schools will be particularly challenged by questions related to campus social life.
“Students want to get back to the college world that many of them had two years ago. They want fraternity parties and athletic events,'' he said. “Institutions will have to restrict access to certain events and opportunities to those who are vaccinating, making for a different campus culture. I don't envy the deans of students and residential life staff across the country.''
‘The Popular Thing’
As students try to assess whether to return to campus, it doesn’t help that hastily crafted policies sometimes leave them scratching their heads.
At Florida State University, which is not allowed to mandate masks or vaccinations, students who test positive for Covid-19 or are exposed will have to find their own housing off-campus in which to isolate. The school says its housing is at full capacity.
“On a personal level, I trust that the science behind the vaccine will protect me,” said Jonathan Marcus, 21, a rising senior at FSU. “A student who is vaccinated can still test positive. Under FSU policy, if these students live on campus, they are rendered homeless.”
Florida’s rules, like those in some other states, were put in place before the recent explosion in Covid-19 cases. State Representative Jerry T. Carter, whose South Carolina district includes Clemson, is a “strong proponent” of the Covid-19 vaccine and masks, and is “seriously worried” about the fall semester at the school, where the surrounding area is only about one-third vaccinated. Nevertheless, in May, Carter co-sponsored a bill that sought to ban schools in the state from requiring proof of vaccination. The rule later made it into the state’s budget, which Carter also voted for.
"At the time, it was the popular thing to do," Carter, 69, said in a phone interview. "If this continues to ramp up, it potentially could cause a change."
But opinions often change faster than laws do, and with the fall semester fast approaching, schools and students are largely bound to their states’ rules. The South Carolina legislature, Carter noted, doesn’t resume its regular session until January.
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