Dire COVID-19 data forces colleges to require masks, even in red states

Ohio State, Auburn among those mandating face coverings.

The Delta variant is swiftly moving through communities across the United States, and that is having a deep impact on how institutions of higher education are preparing to bring back students for the fall semester.

The Tompkins County Health department in upstate New York reported this week that eight students from Ithaca College had tested positive for COVID-19. None of them currently lives on campus.

With a vaccine mandate already in place, Ithaca officials say they will rely on a 17-month-old, tried-and-true prevention measure it hopes will prevent outbreaks from occurring as students return: masks for all, even the fully vaccinated. Cornell University, located just minutes away, also has imposed its own mask requirement.

“With the steep increase in the number of new positive COVID-19 cases in recent days being reported nationally as well as here in Tompkins County, effective immediately Ithaca College is reinstituting a mandatory face-covering policy for all indoor campus spaces for all individuals,” Ithaca officials wrote in a letter to staff, faculty and students.

In the past few days, dozens of colleges and universities have implemented mask policies again. They include an expected surge of institutions from blue states, including big ones such as the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State University and several smaller ones that include a handful of community colleges in Illinois. But there also have been surprising mandates implemented in red states, such as at The Ohio State University, the University of Tennessee and Kansas State University. Three institutions in Alabama—Alabama State University, Auburn University, University of Alabama-Birmingham—have brought back masks, too.

It is unclear whether those will be allowed to stand. The University of South Carolina had announced a mask mandate, only to have it halted by the state’s attorney general. The university will only be allowed to require face coverings in its health facilities and on campus transportation.

Just days after saying he too was “disappointed that these [mask] measures are necessary, as we hoped for different circumstances when we came back together,” the university’s interim President, Harris Pastides, backtracked.

“I deeply respect all persons’ rights to make their own choices, and I respect our federal and state governments’ roles in guiding our university,” Pastisdes wrote in a statement to the community. “I remain committed to encouraging all Gamecocks to wear face coverings and to get vaccinated for the benefit of themselves and others.”

Pastides also has encouraged students to get vaccinated in a state where 18-to-24-year-olds are severely lagging in receiving COVID doses.

There is also a divide in another Republican-led state, Florida, where mask bans have hit K-12 schools and could hit higher education institutions, too. Seminole State College and Rollins College both installed mask requirements this week. One other institution, Pensacola State College, dropped its mandate, opting for “encouraging” populations to get vaccinated. Florida saw its highest one-day single total of more than 21,000 positive cases since the pandemic began last Friday. But that hasn’t stopped Gov. Ron DeSantis from trying to keep the state open. Reports of large gatherings of maskless partying college students at bars in popular Delray Beach circulated across social media this past weekend. No institutions there—and very few across conservative states—have vaccine mandates.

In Arkansas, three state universities (the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas Tech University and Southern Arkansas University) are trying to get the state’s ban on mask mandates overturned “to prioritize the health and safety of all college campuses in the state.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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