Campuses are Covid-19 incubators, but these US colleges can't require vaccines

Suseth Muñoz, a vice-president of the university's Senate college councils who is vaccinated.
Suseth Muñoz, a vice-president of the university's Senate college councils who is vaccinated.PHOTO: NYTIMES

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS (NYTIMES) - It is what many universities fear. After months of gearing up for a fall semester that seemed like normal, with in-person classes and packed football games, the University of Texas at San Antonio announced Wednesday (Aug 11) that almost all courses will be held online for the first three weeks.

The university's president, Taylor Eighmy, notified the campus of 30,000 students of the shift, blaming a surge in delta variant cases in San Antonio.

Fully remote classes are something leaders of universities across the country hope to avoid this fall, after three semesters of pandemic disruption on their campuses.

Yet, even as infections rise, public universities in Texas are denied the most potent tools to stop the spread - they cannot force students or staff to get vaccines or even wear masks.

Governor Gregg Abbott of Texas renewed his ban on vaccine and mask mandates in late July. As many as 20 Republican-led states forbid vaccine mandates in some form.

While their public institutions are hamstrung, more than 500 other public and private colleges around the country have instituted vaccine requirements.

"The goal of university presidents is to get shots in arms," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an industry group.

"But in deep red states, mandating a vaccination is likely to draw hard and fast battle lines."

That task is particularly difficult in Texas and Florida, where mask mandates are also banned and the virus is surging.

College leaders have been forced to find workarounds. They are delivering carefully parsed statements encouraging the use of vaccines and masks, while also dangling prizes and even making subtle threats aimed at persuading students to be vaccinated.

"I think UT would like to follow the science," said Suseth Muñoz, a senior on the system's Austin campus, who is among student leaders pushing for tougher preventive measures.

"But public universities are in a bind. They want to advocate for public health but they can't do it because of the repercussions that will come."

The University of Texas at Austin, which has urged students to get vaccines, announced that students living in its residence halls must show proof of a negative coronavirus test before getting keys to their rooms. Arriving on campus with no place to live could be a strong incentive to be vaccinated.

Muñoz, a vice-president of the university's Senate college councils who is vaccinated, says that student leaders are demanding more protection. "We're going to be advocating for the lives of the 50,000 students on campus to be kept as safe as possible," she said, describing a "scary feeling" on the campus.

Among suggestions made by Muñoz's group: A return to online classes in Austin.

In San Antonio, where classes are set to begin online Aug 23, the university also announced it was instituting a strict testing protocol for students, who will begin arriving to move into their dorm rooms next week.

Texas A&M University, in College Station, is using the carrot approach. It will hold a drawing Sunday, with only vaccinated students eligible to win. The prize? Free tuition for a year.

The federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has said that vaccine rates were low among young people, who may feel invincible, while a new study by public health experts at Yale found that schools that achieve very high vaccination rates - 90 per cent or so - can return to normal operations with minimal social distancing and testing.

One of the study's authors, A. David Paltiel, said that college leaders who do not require vaccines were guilty of a dereliction of duty. "They're not taking care of their constituents," said Paltiel, a professor of public health.

"It really comes down to whether they have any business opening their doors."

Few university leaders have challenged state restrictions. A decision by Indiana University to require vaccines - despite an ambiguous state law opposing vaccine passports - drew a letter of rebuke from 19 state lawmakers, as well as a lawsuit from students, which is awaiting US Supreme Court action.

Officials at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana, say the requirement will allow the university to save US$10 million (S$13.6 million) by eliminating coronavirus testing.

Cleveland State University in Ohio also decided to go ahead with a vaccine requirement for dormitory residents - despite a state law banning vaccine mandates - with the university noting that the new law does not go into effect until October.

Harlan M. Sands, Cleveland State's president, denied that he was exploiting a loophole. "We fully respect the law," Sands said, adding that his downtown campus of 20,000 students had only a 3.6 per cent coronavirus positivity rate last year, because of its strict protocols.

Other institutions are just getting creative.

At the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where the state Legislature banned public entities from requiring vaccines, campus leaders are planning a mass vaccination event at Neyland Stadium on Wednesday, the same day classes start.

On its website promoting the event, the university is offering unspecified "fun activities" as well as special behind-the-scenes access to the football stadium.

Less fun may be in store for its students who must quarantine this year, according to an announcement last week by Donde Plowman, the school's chancellor.

"The university will no longer provide quarantine or isolation housing, meals, or transportation for students who need to isolate or quarantine," Plowman wrote in a boldfaced warning. Students, she strongly suggested, are on their own - a push perhaps to get the vaccine, particularly since coronavirus cases have doubled in Knoxville.

Arizona's public universities are also banned from requiring vaccines. But at Arizona State University, in Tempe, which expects about 75,000 students on campus this fall, vaccinated students will get a chance for prime seats at a football game and musical play Hamilton tickets.

At Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff, officials are dangling a chance for an Apple Watch. And the University of Arizona, in Tucson, plans to hold a drawing for lunch with the president, Robert C. Robbins, an outspoken critic of Governor Doug Ducey's executive order banning vaccine mandates.

And in apparent defiance of state anti-mask mandate rules, universities systems in Arizona and Arkansas announced on Wednesday that they would require masks indoors.

Florida's large public university and college systems will soon be greeting thousands of students, as the state's medical facilities are overwhelmed.

Yet Governor Ron DeSantis is a steadfast opponent of both vaccine and mask mandates, signing a law in May that prohibits proof of vaccines and, more recently, an executive order banning mask requirements.

Even though that executive order, signed July 30, technically applied to only elementary and high schools, university leaders were told Friday, during a meeting of the state's 12 university presidents, that it also applied to them, according to Larry Robinson, president of Florida A&M University, a historically Black school in Tallahassee.

It was the third meeting in one week of the state's university leaders as they try to develop a system-wide approach, he said.

Robinson is encouraging both masks and vaccines among his 9,000 students, but many students are reluctant, even as the university has said it was offering up to $1 million in prizes - gift cards, laptops and iPads - to vaccinated students.

"It's not just a matter of vaccine hesitancy, it's boiling down to vaccine resistance," Robinson said. "Some people have decided it might endanger them, or they're lining up along political lines."

At the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Dernika David, a 21-year-old junior, says she finds DeSantis' restrictions frustrating.

"I know that if we had stricter enforcement, Covid-19 would not be such a hot spot where I am right now," said David, president of a statewide organisation of Black students, the Florida African American Students Association.

"In this moment, everybody knows somebody who has Covid-19," said David, who is vaccinated. "I feel like as governor he should implement better rules."

Pensacola State College, a commuter school in Florida's panhandle, decided to follow CDC guidelines and impose a mask mandate effective Aug 2.

That was before DeSantis signed his executive order banning masks in public schools. Pensacola State quickly rescinded its mask order, assuming that the new rule would be interpreted to apply to colleges.

Now, the college's president, C. Edward Meadows, is pushing personal responsibility and hoping his students exercise it by receiving the vaccine and wearing masks.

"I guess it's a little disconcerting that there are individuals who place political philosophy before their health," Meadows said. "That, to me, is a frustrating situation to be in."