COVID-19 protests, outbreaks and deaths fuel chaotic restart for colleges

Fall semester highlights divide among campuses with and without mandates.
By: | September 8, 2021
Photo courtesy of Duke University

An alarming rise in the numbers of COVID-19 positive cases across the U.S., along with a handful of tragic outcomes, have many colleges and universities on high alert and adjusting strategies just weeks into the fall semester.

According to published data released by Johns Hopkins University, national case counts have quadrupled over this time last year and the more aggressive delta variant has led to a doubling of deaths. One of those came over Labor Day weekend as a 24-year-old Shorter University assistant basketball coach died just two days after being diagnosed with the virus. Shorter, like most institutions in the state of Georgia, does not require masks or vaccines.

“The Shorter University family was saddened to learn of the tragic death of Coach Ryan Dupree,” university spokesperson Dawn Tolbert told the Rome News-Tribune. “We offer our heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones. Our prayers are with them and the basketball team in this time of loss.”

Though deaths among college students have been rare, they have occurred, including two at Penn State University during the past year. Breanna Gray, an otherwise healthy 19-year-old student at Navarro College in Texas, passed away on Aug. 30 after battling COVID-19 for nearly a month. Another 19-year-old, Chad Dorrill at Appalachian State University, died of a neurological disorder related to COVID last September. Indiana’s Grace College, Austin College in Texas and the University of New Haven all have had students succumb to the virus since the pandemic began.

Public health officials are worried that a lack of protocols at institutions, breaks such as Labor Day and the emergence of delta—which now is triggering 99% of positive cases in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—may trigger huge spikes in cases over the next two weeks. Outbreaks on some campuses, including Connecticut College, La Salle University and the University of Dallas, have forced a switch to remote learning.

To get ahead of potential outbreaks, even universities that don’t have vaccine mandates in place because of state-instituted bans on passports are taking other precautions. The University of Tennessee announced it is extending its mask requirement, which went into effect on Aug. 2. While there are 330 active students cases and 64 employees who have tested positive across the UT system, both numbers are down significantly from the previous week.

“Due to the continued rise in COVID-19 Delta variant numbers, campuses throughout the University of Tennessee System will continue to require that face coverings be worn by everyone at all times during on-campus indoor activities until conditions improve,” the university said in a statement. “These requirements will be re-evaluated in a few weeks and adjusted as necessary. UT remains committed to ensuring the health and safety of those who work, study and visit our campuses. It also continues to stress the importance of being vaccinated for COVID-19.”

One major concern for colleges and universities as they head further into the fall and the prevalence of in-person instruction is protection for employees and staff, especially those who are unvaccinated. A 32-year-old assistant football coach at Western Carolina University lost his battle with COVID two weeks ago. Collin College in McKinney, Texas, lost two employees over the past year to COVID-19, including its Dean of Nursing and a nursing professor who came out of retirement to instruct again last December. Collin College has no pandemic requirements in place, in compliance with Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that bans mandates on vaccines and masks.

To the north, the University of Oklahoma also says it has no option to require masks or vaccines. In its guidance, it says it is prevented from doing so because of Oklahoma Senate Bill 658. That hasn’t stopped a very vocal chapter of the American Association of University Professors from asking for demands throughout the year. In a mid-August release, they drafted a letter to administrators, board members and state regents to “enact effective, evidence-based policies to protect the community,” which includes mandates and virtual instruction options. It included a grade of F+ for the university in its handling of the pandemic thus far.

“While many of us have already been vaccinated, large numbers of our faculty, staff, and student communities are responsible for caretaking for children who are ineligible for vaccination, are immunocompromised, or care for people whose immune systems are compromised,” the letter said. “These claims of inability to act are inimical to larger public and community interests and will likely and directly result in COVID-19 infections including severe ones. The statutes in question have been analyzed as legally dubious by experts in the field, and a similar statute has been ruled quite likely unconstitutional. Legal experts publicly note their interpretation that the law does not prohibit departments or colleges or individual professors from providing their own masking rules. Instead of reacting to political winds, we must set the course for our state. Our future depends on it.”

Professors nationwide have launched protests against their institutions, and some have even quit, fearing the potential of acquiring the virus where masking is not mandatory.

But elsewhere, there has been pushback over requirements. Amherst College’s two-mask (or KN95 mask) mandate prompted a letter to President Carolyn Martin from students that cited a lack of data and CDC guidance. The libertarian group Young Americans for Liberty also has organized its own protests across 23 campuses, including Rutgers University, Virginia Tech and the University of Colorado. It says it is not “anti-vaccine, but anti-vaccine mandate.”

“Individuals should be free to make their own health-care decisions with their doctors,” said YAL senior spokesman Eric Brakey. “Instead, taxpayer-funded college administrators are imposing one-size-fits-all vaccine mandates on every student, regardless of disability or natural immunity status.”

Approximately 1,000 institutions have vaccine mandates, while many more have instituted mask requirements, either in most public spaces on campus or in classroom settings.