This spring, reports of relatively low rates of coronavirus transmission, hospitalizations, and deaths dominated national headlines. By summer, hope began to fade as the highly contagious BA.5 subvariant of Omicron, a master at evading prior immunities, was credited with causing rising case counts as campuses prepared to welcome students for the 2022 Fall semester. With that, universities were announcing a mixed bag of approaches that ranged from restoration of mask mandates and recommended testing, offering incentives to do so, or the dropping of all mask and vaccination requirements.
On July 12, the Biden Administration released a statement that BA.5 has the potential to cause infections to rise in coming weeks, particularly in areas where “fewer people are up to date on their vaccinations and there is increased waning of immunity from vaccines.” In the same announcement, The White House COVID-19 Team outlined its strategy for managing BA.5, which involves providing easy, convenient access to high-quality masks, vaccines and boosters, tests, treatments, and information.
Emerging science supports the efficacy of such measures in combating COVID-19 on college and university campuses. A peer-reviewed study using data from 1,400 higher education institutions published in June revealed that counties in which colleges and universities conducted on-campus COVID-19 testing in fall 2020 had lower transmission and death rates than those that did not.
The University of California, Santa Cruz dropped mask mandates for Spring 2022 as of April 10, after the County of Santa Cruz Health Services Agency reported 33 known COVID cases among residents that day. But by semester’s end, June 9, that number had more than quadrupled, reaching 141 known cases. Just this week, on July 18, University of California–Irvine reinstated its campus-wide mask policy after it was announced that 9 out of 10 Californians were living in areas of high COVID-19 transmission.
A Wide Range of Approaches
Among other guidance, the Center for Disease Control currently recommends that institutions of higher education “implement an entry screening testing strategy at minimum for people who are not up to date with their vaccines prior to the beginning of each term, including those who live off campus.” The agency also recommends that institutions of higher education establish policies that make getting vaccinated “as easy and convenient as possible,” as well as indoor masking in public for everyone in areas of substantial or high transmission.
Still, the decision of whether to implement testing, mask, and vaccination mandates remains controversial for states and public university systems, with many “strongly recommending” vaccination, masking, and distancing. Many others, like the University of Delaware and the University of Maryland, were still providing testing on their campuses.
In August 2021, Mississippi’s college board voted to prohibit COVID-19 vaccine mandates at the state’s eight public universities “as a condition of employment or enrollment except for clinical settings.” Officials at the Louisiana Department of Health removed vaccination for college students at the start of the 2022-2023 school year. And on July 13, 2022, the state of Illinois announced that it would remove vaccine mandates for higher education employees and students through an updated executive order.
Maine’s public universities, on the other hand, will require students to be fully vaccinated or obtain an exemption approved by the University of Maine system by August 31, 2022. The State University of New York — the most extensive university system in the U.S. — took this approach a step further, requiring all students to be fully vaccinated, including a booster shot, for the fall 2022 semester.
Other universities are leaning on incentives to promote testing and vaccines.
At the University of Houston Downtown, students who get a free COVID test can earn $5 a week toward all university dining services. As of August 1, the University of Massachusetts Amherst is offering free polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which are more accurate than antigen tests, to anyone in the university community with symptoms or known exposure.
As of June 22, the state of Michigan and the Western Michigan University removed mask mandates for fully vaccinated individuals. At the same time, the school encourages vaccines through the Western Michigan University Vaccine incentive program, which offers vaccinated students up to $10,000 in scholarships.
Students at College of the Desert, a public community college in Palm Desert, California, can earn a $100 Amazon gift card for receiving a vaccine — no booster required. The school plans to spend $1 million of its federal aid on the incentive, which could cover 10,000 students.
Strategic use of federal aid is promising. In one example, California State University Long Beach allocated $11.7 million from the Higher Educational Emergency Relief Fund toward new HVAC and filtration upgrades, enhanced cleaning protocols and personal protective equipment, and COVID testing and vaccine delivery. Afterward, in 2021, California State University Long Beach saw more students graduate than ever before.
Of course, mask, testing, and vaccine mandates are not the only COVID-related policies colleges and universities are grappling with. COVID-related expectations when it comes to attendance and deadlines have also come into question as the BA.5 varient takes a stronger hold.
For example, In a recent commentary, Andrea Aebersold, director of faculty instructional development in the division of teaching excellence and innovation at the University of California–Irvine, recommended “flexibility with guardrails” during the Fall 2022 semester.
“Many faculty have shared that they bent over backwards during remote learning with flexible everything and now that we’re back, students are demanding that their every request be granted,” Aebersold told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “It’s time for the pendulum to swing back to a happy medium.”