At colleges, vaccine mandates slow and lifting masks rises

Most institutions that are relaxing guidelines are strongly encouraging their communities to get preventive COVID-19 doses.
By: | May 17, 2021
Sebastian Stam/Unsplash

The surge in colleges and universities requiring COVID-19 vaccinations of students for the fall has turned into a slow drip over the past week.

There were a few notable institutions Tuesday to declare a mandate, including Vanderbilt University, the College of William & Mary, Seattle Pacific University and the University of Rhode Island, which joined the 350-plus others that already have installed their own prerequisite.

But a more noticeable pandemic-related trend has emerged in recent days has been the increase in higher education leaders announcing the lifting of facial coverings.

Across the country, colleges are tossing aside mask mandates, letting their communities know that with the Centers for Disease Control’s latest blessing, facial coverings are no longer a requirement: Wear them if makes you feel comfortable … and please do so if you’re not vaccinated.

“Effective today, Idaho State University will remove the on-campus face covering requirement for fully vaccinated individuals,” President Kevin Satterlee wrote in a letter to the Idaho State community. “Today’s decision is based upon updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and is a huge step forward in our return towards normal operations. Individuals who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine are still encouraged to wear face coverings in accordance with the CDC guidance.”

The latter is key because only 36% of people in the state of Idaho have received even the first dose of one of the three vaccines – Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson. Positive cases have remained low. Compared with early January, when a statewide spike saw more than 2,200 cases, there have only been an average of 161 new ones over the past seven days. Because Idaho is one of 18 states that have either banned or placed limits on vaccine passports, no institutions there have vaccine mandates.

The same is true for the state of Utah, so colleges and universities are relying on guidance they are receiving from the CDC and local public health officials to make decisions short of those requirements. The new mask guidelines gave Weber State University an opening to lift the protocol, although it did leave room for changes, if necessary.

Weber State noted on its website that “beginning May 19, face coverings will no longer be required in WSU facilities”, though it said it could still require masks for large gatherings or special events. It also highlighted the importance of social distancing, hygiene and getting vaccinated.

Across the country in Florida – where vaccine passports also have been banned – both the University of Central Florida and Florida State University lifted their mask mandates. There was some confusion initially about Florida State President John Thrasher’s initial statement on the requirement, but officials clarified that on Monday.

“To be clear, face coverings are recommended while indoors on campus, but they are no longer required,” they wrote, adding this caveat: “Departments, colleges, and individual faculty or staff members are not permitted to mandate practices that are inconsistent with university policy.”

Even with the lack of mandates and the lifting of masks, most colleges are preaching for students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated. The goal is to reopen more fully for in-person learning ,and that will best happen the more their populations are protected.

Many institutions, including the University of Minnesota, also have become wary of the potential for shaming on campuses where mask mandates have been lifted.

“I ask all members of our community to support anyone who chooses to wear a mask, noting that there could be many reasons one might do so,” President Joan Gabel wrote.

Despite the news from the CDC, some institutions are still taking a cautious approach on facial coverings, understanding that herd immunity has not been achieved, students have been slow to get vaccinated and that there are variants that can complicate COVID-19 eradication efforts.

The University of Michigan, for example, did relax its mask policy for those who are outdoors but kept the requirement in other areas: “inside buildings, on U-M transportation, participating in organized contact sports, and when outdoors in gatherings of 100 or more,” according to the university’s news website. It also asked that students and faculty keep a mask with them in case it is needed in close contact situations.