Covid returns to college campuses
On Sept. 9, 2020, the lead story of this newsletter was “Coronavirus Dorms and Super Spreaders.”
“As outbreaks bloom from illegal student parties and the virus spreads through the dorms, colleges are the new meatpacking plants,” we wrote at the time.
Now, a year later, college campuses are beginning to fill up again. Students are still congregating, as students are wont to do. But this year, the flash point is more about vaccines and mask mandates, and less about quarantines and remote learning.
Professors are nervous, my colleague Anemona Hartocollis reports. Last year, the rules could seem draconian, as students faced possible expulsion for attending parties. But this year, as lecture halls fill to capacity again, some educators yearn for clear, science-based guidance.
“It seems like a repeat,” Michael Atzmon, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan, told Anemona. “On the one hand, we have the vaccine. On the other hand, we have Delta.”
More than 1,000 colleges and universities — often in states that voted for President Biden — have adopted at least some vaccination requirements, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Some colleges took things one step further, Politico reported, punishing students who resisted vaccination mandates.
But other universities, especially in Republican-led states, must dance around state bans on mask or vaccination mandates. Teachers cannot require students to wear masks, or even ask those with Covid-like symptoms to leave the classroom.
Less than 50 percent of college-age people are fully vaccinated, according to data from the C.D.C.
The University of North Georgia, for instance, is not requiring its students to be vaccinated or masked this fall.
Matthew Boedy, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the university, made a raw emotional appeal for masking, telling students he would be masked and vaccinated. But few students took the hint; more than two-thirds of the first-year students in his writing class showed up unmasked.
“It isn’t a visual hellscape, like hospitals, it’s more of an emotional hellscape,” Boedy said.
Many professors are soldiering on, but one professor at Georgia State University was fired for refusing to teach maskless students in-person.
At the University of Georgia, Irwin Bernstein, an 88-year-old psychology professor, returned from retirement to teach this fall. When a student resisted his repeated calls to wear masks, he announced that he was retiring — again — and walked out of class.
“I had risked my life to defend my country while in the Air Force,” he told The Red & Black, a student publication, in an email. “I was not willing to risk my life to teach a class with an unmasked student.”
More than 2,000 readers weighed in on Anemona’s reporting, and you can read their comments here. Here are a few edited excerpts:
If you put professors in the position of arguing with students over masks, you will erode trust on both sides. And when students don’t trust you, you can’t teach them. So the purpose of education is defeated before it begins. Administration needs to set and enforce mask and vaccine policies. This should be a no-brainer. — Maggie Wood, Oregon, who, like Boedy, also teaches rhetoric and composition.
These professors have lost their bearings. If you are vaccinated, the risk from catching Covid goes from low to extremely low. The vaccinated can get on with their lives without all this hysteria. Those who choose not to be vaccinated are putting a strain on our health care system but are only a risk to each other in daily life. — August Coombs, Nova Scotia, Canada
I am a professor at a public Texas university. Most of my students show up to class masked, but a handful do not. I wouldn’t call it an emotional hellscape, but it’s psychologically fraught. The students who go unmasked are declaring themselves in a way that would have been hidden before. And their self presentation has an effect on how I see them, even though I know I shouldn’t let it. — Kathryn, Dallas
In other pandemic higher ed news:
Turmoil for children under 12
About 48 million children in the U.S. are under 12, and thus still ineligible for the vaccine. And the F.D.A. may not approve pediatric vaccinations any time soon.
So as the Delta variant swells, and more children are getting seriously sick, parents are struggling to figure out what to do with their unvaccinated kids.
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
Some families are keeping their children at home. Others are equally frustrated by another school year marked by pandemic rules. And many are just sending their children to school, albeit reluctantly.
“If I had an option and I could keep them at home and keep the lights on and feed them, it would be a no-brainer,” said Isis Spann, 32, who is cautiously sending her four children to in-person school in South Carolina. “But it just doesn’t work out for our family dynamic that way.”
In other pandemic K-12 news:
What else we’re following
How to raise resilient children
“Never has resilience — be it physical, mental, emotional or financial — been more important to our society than in the past year and a half, and never have I been so determined to pass it on to my son,” Erik Vance writes in our Parenting newsletter.
As a parent, you can foster resilience by building a safe foundation for your children and modeling patience. You also have to let them work through challenges on their own, both big and small.
“Creating resilience in children isn’t just chucking them into the deep end of a pool to see if they can swim,” Erik writes. “It’s about the bedrock of support you give them every day.”
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P.S. We wanted to let you know about an essential subscriber-only live event: “What We Know About Kids and Covid-19.” Dr. Anthony Fauci will join my colleagues at 1 p.m. Eastern time tomorrow, Sept. 9, for a vital Q. and A. for parents, educators and students everywhere. R.S.V.P. here.