Will the Delta Variant Force Colleges Back Online?

Will the Delta Variant Force Colleges Back Online?
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By Dean Golembeski

Published on August 18, 2021

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With the start of fall semester at hand, colleges and universities are caught in a bind as the delta variant spreads. Should they cancel in-person classes and go online, or should they proceed as they would in a normal year but with some restrictions in place?

The answer depends upon where the schools are located, and whether they are private or public. But following a tough year of online learning, most schools are going ahead with in-person classes. Vaccination requirements, along with mask and testing mandates at some schools, lessen the likelihood of colleges reverting to fully online classes this fall.

Schools are far more prepared for in-person learning than they were a year ago. Many are instituting contests that help promote safe behavior, and are making masks, vaccines, and COVID-19 testing a regular part of college life.

Vaccination requirements, along with mask and testing mandates at some schools, lessen the likelihood of colleges reverting to fully online classes this fall.

"We are light years ahead of where we were last fall," Preeti Malani, professor and chief health officer at the University of Michigan, told U.S. News & World Report. "We're in a much better position to have a successful fall in terms of health and safety."

Helping in those efforts is a recent decision by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett who refused a request to block Indiana University's requirement that its students and employees get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Eight students had requested emergency relief from the Supreme Court to stop the university's vaccine mandate. Barrett denied the request without comment on August 11. It was undoubtedly a welcome development for the hundreds of public and private colleges requiring the COVID-19 vaccine this fall.

Universities in Red States Are Challenged by New Laws

"The goal of university presidents is to get shots in arms," Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, told the New York Times. "But in deep red states, mandating a vaccination is likely to draw hard and fast battle lines."

One of those red states is Alabama, where the University of Alabama system is returning to in-person instruction for the fall semester despite the fact that the state currently has the lowest vaccination rate in the country. Face coverings will be required at all times in classroom settings at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Huntsville. But a new Alabama law prevents schools from requiring vaccinations.

In Texas, another red state, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order on July 29 that prohibits vaccine and mask mandates. The University of Texas at San Antonio says that almost all of its courses will be held online for the first three weeks of the fall semester. University president Taylor Eighmy cited a surge in delta variant cases as the reason.

“In deep red states, mandating a vaccination is likely to draw hard and fast battle lines.”
Terry W. Hartle, Senior Vice President of the American Council on Education

The five two-year colleges that make up the Alamo Colleges District in San Antonio, Texas, will also hold online classes for the first two weeks of the fall semester.

The University of Texas at Austin will have in-person classes, and administrators are urging students to get vaccinated. The university also says that students living in its residence halls will have to show proof of a negative coronavirus test before getting keys to their rooms.

At the University of Arizona in Tucson, students will return to campus this fall. University officials tried to implement strict pandemic safety policies, but now can only encourage students to get vaccinated and wear masks indoors.

An executive order from Gov. Doug Ducey prevented the university from requiring unvaccinated students to be tested for COVID-19 and wear masks. The Arizona legislature has since passed a law mirroring Ducey's order that goes into effect on September 29.

College Administrators Dangle Prizes for the Vaccinated

Faced with the state's restrictions, Arizona State University is taking a creative approach to vaccines as it prepares for the return of 75,000 students for the fall semester. Vaccinated students will have a chance to win gift cards, prime seats at a football game, and "Hamilton" tickets. And Northern Arizona University is offering a chance for vaccinated students to win electronics and campus bookstore gift cards.

In Texas, Texas A&M University in College Station is trying to encourage students to get vaccinated by holding a drawing for vaccinated students to win one year's free tuition.

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville faces a similar challenge with in-person learning because its state legislature has also banned vaccine requirements. Campus leaders are planning a mass vaccination event on campus on the first day of classes.

The university will also require all students and staff to wear face masks in some indoor spaces, including classrooms. Additionally, UT Knoxville will no longer provide quarantine or isolation housing, meals, or transportation for students who need to isolate or quarantine.

"We are excited to have our campus communities together this fall and are planning full campus experiences across the UT system. With the delta variant spreading in our state and communities, we want to help ensure the safest return possible," UT system president Randy Boyd told the Knoxville News Sentinel. "The best way to take care of each other as we return to campus is to first take care of ourselves by getting the COVID-19 vaccine."

At least one public university is finding another way around a state ban on vaccine mandates. Cleveland State University in Ohio is requiring dormitory residents to be vaccinated. The university says the Ohio state law banning vaccine mandates does not go into effect until October, so its policy is legal. The school's 20,000 students will return to campus for in-person classes on August 21.

“The best way to take care of each other as we return to campus is to first take care of ourselves by getting the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Randy Boyd, University of Tennessee President

Harlan M. Sands, CSU's president, denied that he was exploiting a loophole. "We fully respect the law," he told the New York Times.

Among the many other schools returning to in-person classes this fall are California State University's 23 campuses, Eastern New Mexico University, the University of Wyoming, and the University of Nevada, Reno.

California State University students who want to attend classes in person or visit campus will have to get vaccinated or face possible academic and disciplinary consequences.

Eastern New Mexico University is requiring masks to be worn indoors by all individuals, but is not requiring members of the ENMU community to provide proof of vaccination. The University of Wyoming is requiring people to wear face masks indoors through at least September 20 amid an increase in COVID-19 throughout the state.

The University of Nevada, Reno will also require all students and employees to wear masks indoors, and those not fully vaccinated will have to wear masks while outdoors on campus. Students enrolled in the fall semester who are fully vaccinated by October 1 can enter a drawing that includes two $5,000 tuition scholarships as prizes.

Private Colleges Also Cautiously Return to Campus

At private institutions, the policies are similar to those at public colleges.

Creighton University, located in Omaha, Nebraska, will have no online classes and no masks will be required on campus. Earlier in the summer, Creighton required all students to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, announced in April that it would return to in-person classes this fall. Students must present proof of vaccination in order to attend classes and other campus activities. Duke also will test all students when they arrive on campus and again each week throughout the fall semester.

At Princeton University in New Jersey all students, faculty, and staff will be required to wear face coverings indoors. The university says the requirement will be reviewed weekly. All classes will be in person for the fall semester.

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, where all students are required to be vaccinated before returning to class, university president Jonathan Holloway summed up the sentiments of many college administrators as in-person classes resume.

"We are committed to health and safety for all members of our community, and adding COVID-19 vaccination to our student immunization requirements will help provide a safer and more robust college experience for our students," Holloway said.


Feature Image: Hill Street Studios / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Colleges across the U.S. are increasingly requiring COVID-19 vaccination for on-campus learning. Check out the full list of colleges that require the vaccine. Judge Amy Coney Barrett dismissed an emergency appeal from college students who say their school's vaccine mandate violates constitutional rights. Weeks from the beginning of fall term, some prestigious colleges now require face masks, weekly testing, and vaccines for all returning students.