Students are still fighting COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates more than two years into the pandemic, despite repeated messaging from their colleges and universities. And their noncompliance has had a cost. Some institutions have enacted fines or forced them to continue weekly testing. A couple of them have done something a bit more painful: restricting their access to campus wi-fi.
That was the bold step taken in mid-March by Emory University, which slowed down the internet speeds of 1,300 students and limited their views to mostly academic-based sites and materials. It was not the first to do it – last August as the Delta variant was surging, Quinnipiac University in Connecticut cut access to those without vaccines. Although Emory saw some success, it also faced backlash beyond campus from those who don’t agree with mandates.
Still, Emory said it was necessary to get its community toward being fully vaccinated. Currently, around 95% of students and just over 90% of faculty have gotten their primary series and their third doses – and Emory got a good portion to comply (either through vaccination or request for an exemption) after the wi-fi penalty was installed. Overall, 99% of students have gotten their primary series.
Emory officials explained its stance in this statement to University Business:
“Noncompliant students with the university’s COVID-19 booster policy are subject to compliance measures, to include Wi-Fi restrictions, and are informed of these actions in advance. Once these Wi-Fi restrictions took effect, more than half of the affected students submitted proof of a booster shot or requested an exemption.”
As for the potential future of wi-fi restrictions or other measures to increase vaccination, officials said, “We will continue to support our students becoming compliant with important safety and health measures in response to COVID-19.”
Emory notified students of the need for a booster back on Dec. 16 (with a compliance date of Jan. 19), giving them sufficient time to get booster shots or ask for an opt out for religious or medical reasons. While it has adjusted its guidance on masking – opening up most of its public spaces to make them optional on March 7 and classrooms on March 21 – it has not wavered in its messaging on vaccines:
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, Emory University has created several COVID-19 policies that have been effective at limiting campus transmission and reducing illness severity,” officials told UB. “Like most colleges and universities, Emory has a student immunization policy that requires students to be vaccinated for varying communicable diseases or have an approved exemption.”
However, the position on wi-fi taken by Emory sparked strong outcries on Twitter from those concerned with restricting internet access to college students and the enactment of mandates:
- “Free speech is now tied to a liability free experimental shot that has a 1:3K to 1:15K myocarditis rate for their age.”
- “There are some sick people running American universities these days.”
- “Colleges are increasingly adversarial toward their students. Shame on you, @EmoryUniversity”
- “Seriously?! The vaccine does not stop transmission!”
- “This is just creepy.”
- And House candidate Jenine Milum wrote: “I find this type of discrimination abhorrent. When I am elected the Representative for District 82 in Georgia, I will work to protect all student’s rights.”
When Quinnipiac enacted its policy, it also faced backlash. But there were some students who expressed surprise that the university didn’t penalize them further by restricting access to campus. Quinnipiac did install fines but said it saw better compliance once the wi-fi penalty was announced.
Though cutting wi-fi might seem extreme, there are concerns again on campuses about increasing COVID case counts across the United States and a lack of vaccinations. The new BA.2 spinoff of the omicron variant has led to a rise in positive case counts in 26 states and Washington, DC, as well as a rise in hospitalizations in 13 states.
Emory began to see case counts on campus increase slowly at the end of February. Positivity rates climbed to 2.3% on March 21 but have since dropped back to 0.6% over the past two weeks (though the faculty rate is up at 1.22%). Meanwhile, both neighboring DeKalb and Newton counties are both much higher at 5.5% and 2.5%, respectively, as the stealth variant becomes the dominant strain in the state of Georgia.