COVID Fall Reversals

COVID-19 roundup: New York colleges hit brakes on in-person learning; big-time football games sidelined

Syracuse, Hilbert and Niagara among New York private colleges to abandon in-person learning earlier than planned. Outbreaks disrupt college football schedule and start to basketball season.

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Pressure mounts on many colleges to move classes online

The incidents at UNC Chapel Hill and Notre Dame are unlikely to dissuade some college leaders from holding classes on campus.

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UNC Chapel Hill sends students home and turns to remote instruction

They came. They saw. They clustered. Now, a week after starting classes at UNC Chapel Hill, undergraduates are being sent home as coronavirus spreads on campus.

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Colleges walk back fall reopening plans and opt for online-only instruction

Hundreds of colleges announced early this summer they would be reopening for in-person instruction this fall. As start dates near, many backtrack, citing a worsening health crisis.

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COVID-19 Roundup: UNC holds firm on reopening; Hopkins and UMass pivot; Syracuse suspends nondistancing students

Chapel Hill rebuffs recommendations from county health officials to at least delay bringing students back to campus. Syracuse suspends students who didn't social distance. Hopkins and UMass pull back on the fall.

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Colleges reverse decisions to open in person

COVID-19 spread prompts many colleges to reverse plans to bring students back to their physical campuses.

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COVID-19 roundup: NYT counts the campus cases, college staff worries, more fall changes

New York Times identifies 6,300 COVID-19 cases linked to 270 colleges, including 14 deaths. Survey finds college staff members wanting more communication from their leaders. And more decisions about campus reopenings (or not).

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Mandatory campus vaccines do not violate medical ethics (opinion)

In a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, the president of Walsh University, Tim Collins, made the case that vaccine mandates run counter to good policy. He argued that vaccinations should be voluntary, and that it’s a violation of medical ethics to make them mandatory for university students and faculty members. To support his argument, Collins invokes the Nuremberg Code of 1947’s emphasis on voluntary participation in medical trials, saying that it’s a “historical fact” that universities have been “guardians of voluntary participation.”

We’d like to respond to that article and raise two main issues with it: the distorted history that Collins plays off and the disproportional relativism his approach to mandates engages. The fact is that the tale he tells about the history is flawed, and all college attendance is voluntary, so mandating vaccination is not the violation he contends it is.

Medical Ethics and University Responsibility

It’s curious to hinge one’s argument against a mandatory vaccination policy by talking about medical research ethics through the Nuremberg Code. In 1946-47, Nazi medical research practice was scrutinized, and guidelines developed through the code, to promulgate a more ethical approach to human-subjects research and prevent the harms witnessed under that regime. The Nuremberg Code states voluntary consent for human-subjects research is essential, with freedom of choice without any coercion and legal capacity for consent as necessary components. It also speaks to how experiments should be supervised by qualified researchers, avoid unnecessary harm to human participants and be conducted for the purpose of benefiting society in some way.

There’s something off-kilter in how Collins talks about universities as ethical bastions for human-subjects research “since 1947” when programs like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment were run through a research institution, the Tuskegee Institute, with the coordination of the U.S. Public Health Service until 1972. The experiment stopped only because journalists broke the story of the then 40-year-old experiment in which health officials and doctors documented the effects of untreated syphilis on poor Black men in Macon, Ga., long after the medical establishment could treat syphilis with penicillin. That treatment was never offered to those men, nor were they even informed that they had syphilis.

Tuskegee was no secret; many researchers just didn’t see the problem with it. Holding up universities as “the guardians of voluntary participation” since 1947 is an absurd fantasy. Rules have been developed around medical research exactly because of egregious harms, particularly against vulnerable minority populations. We have to keep talking about informed consent because of the looming specter of research misconduct in this arena.

What’s more, the fact is that mandatory vaccination policies are not medical experiments at all, so seeing this through the lens of IRB and Nuremberg is wrongheaded; such policies are not the sort of human-subjects research governed by the infrastructure Collins discusses. Our home university, Virginia Tech, requires students, faculty and staff to submit their vaccine documentation or file for a medical or religious exemption (for which weekly testing is then required). The FDA has now approved the Pfizer vaccine in full, so students should have no reason to refuse vaccination based on how "new" or "untested" it is.

When it comes to the pandemic, vulnerable minority populations have been hardest hit due to systemic and historical racial inequity and ableism. We do better in our protection when we mandate vaccines because we live in communities where presidents of our universities should set a tone of protection for not only their students but also the people in the towns and regions surrounding them.

Vaccination policies are common for universities to have, even pre-COVID. Mitigating the spread of communicable and deadly disease among people in congregate settings, like the dormitories and dining facilities of any campus, is normal, desirable and simply responsible community-forward action on the part of university leaders. We know that COVID was especially deadly in congregate settings like nursing homes and other institutions, and easily spread in dorms. Indeed, many of the sacrifices that students made during the prevaccination phase of the COVID pandemic were to mitigate this spread -- with pivots online, quarantine dorms on some campuses and other interruptions to the normal flow of a semester.

It’s hubris to think that universities are ethical bastions when it comes to human-subjects research, and it’s a stretch to think of what’s happening here as human-subjects research anyway. Universities have had mandates for a long time when it comes to a variety of vaccinations. There is nothing experimental about such a policy, and students already submit to the other policies in place for required vaccinations for campus participation.

Disproportional Relativism

Collins also writes in the article, “My personal acceptance of the vaccination does not mean the risk-reward ratio is the same for everyone, and it does not suggest that arriving at a different selection of prevention or treatment is any less contributory to the common good.” This sort of wacky disproportional relativism allows for “elder” college administrators to implicitly make the claim that students, potentially younger, could have a different amount of risk and reward when it comes to deciding on the COVID vaccine.

But the risks of COVID, while not even between people, are community risks. His rhetoric tries to collapse the collective problem we have -- stemming the spread of COVID -- into one based on an individual calculus of risk that might be affected by age.

From our perspective, it appears that many people, including Collins, irresponsibly turn this matter of public health into a political debate. He wants to cast the university’s role in the community as one with a very particular sense of future public good: one in which we use a range of tools universities have developed to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, combined with a “critical thinking” public that is skeptical of “new” vaccines and their long-term effects. Voluntariness seems to be a premise of his argument, but all college attendance, including at his private university, is already voluntary. Students do have a choice. Don’t want the vaccine? Don’t come on campus.

Collins’s version of voluntariness seems to translate to a version of libertarian individualism that works poorly as a response to a community problem. And all universities are already communities that require one to adhere to their rules and regulations, whether through academic honor codes, communication of norms, classroom expectations, integrity in research or other standards. His institution also seems hip to this in their COVID testing requirements, which read, “Currently, testing is voluntary. However, we ask that members of our campus community take the test if they are selected. We appreciate your support in helping to serve CAV Nation and our community.” This statement speaks to community mores and norms while also asserting voluntariness.

Likewise, his institution feigns voluntariness while offering lottery chances for vaccinated students to win free tuition for only 30 students or so out of a student body of about 2,650. This type of incentivization undermines his appeal to the IRB and research ethics to make his case -- especially given the coercive force of such an impressive lottery incentive.

We have a moral imperative, each one of us, to mitigate harm in the domains in which we have power. For college and university presidents and other high-level decision makers acting during a viral pandemic, that means putting into practice actionable and responsible public health policies -- and not mischaracterizing the health laws and medical ethical imperatives we do have in place.

As students and faculty members at a large university with international students, an older surrounding demographic and family members more susceptible to COVID-19, we have a responsibility to protect ourselves and others. Vaccine (and mask) mandates are a low bar for morally responsible university planning during our current moment -- one in which the U.S. COVID rates are three times what they were a year ago and hospitals are overflowing.

The authors are part of the medicine and society minor program at Virginia Tech, hosted in the department of science, technology and society. Cora Olson is an instructional adjunct professor and Ashley Shew is an associate professor in the department. Miranda Fleck and Chiara Tartaglino are students in the program.

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A satiric take on campus COVID policies (opinion)

From the Office of the President, South Tennessee State College

Dear members of the college community,

I know that some of you are unhappy with my decision not to put in place a mandate for indoor mask wearing, regular COVID testing or vaccines at South Tennessee State. This decision, I assure you, was made after considerable thought and extensive consultation with several people I know. It is a reflection of my belief that the choice to receive a vaccine or wear a mask is a deeply personal one, best left to each member of our community, and that arguments about mandates should be avoided because, in the words of Georgia governor Brian Kemp, they “are causing people’s blood pressure to go up,” and the last thing we would want to do is endanger the health of anyone on campus.

Please know that we take the current pandemic seriously. We have acquired 60,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, several dozen COVID tests and enough masks for everyone on campus to wear one, in the event that they choose to do so. To quote another leader, Teresa MacCartney, acting chancellor of the University System of Georgia, “Everyone has the ability to get vaccinated. Everybody has the ability to wear a mask.” Whether they choose to take advantage of that ability is a matter beyond our concern or control.

Some have complained that our pandemic-related policies are inconsistent with other long-standing, freedom-restricting policies on campus, and I want to assure you that your voices have been heard. Effective immediately, therefore, I am making the following changes to campus guidelines and offices.

Smoking will now be allowed in all campus residence halls and classroom buildings. I hope that people will not smoke in those spaces, and I myself will not do so. But the decision to smoke and to assume the risks of smoking is, in the end, a deeply personal one, and it seems inappropriate to mandate that members of our community not smoke when and where they choose.

Driving while intoxicated on campus roads will be frowned upon but not cause for disciplinary action. Everyone on the campus has the ability not to drink and drive, and I hope they will take advantage of that ability. But really, once we have made that opportunity available, what more can we do?

The Debate Club is hereby officially disbanded. Nothing gets the blood pressure up more quickly than a heated argument, and what is debate, after all, but groups and individuals arguing with one another? Let’s all just calm down and stop worrying about whether or not we agree. Classroom debates and discussions of controversial topics, while not entirely prohibited, are discouraged. Faculty members should include on their syllabi as many subjects as possible about which everyone agrees.

The Title IX office will be converted to a combined coffee bar and workout room. We will continue to conduct rigorous education on the subjects of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and everyone on campus will have the ability not to engage in such behaviors, but since we are not formally prohibiting community members from engaging in some activities that harm others, it seems wrong to single out this area for any sort of mandate. As for federal regulations, well, we at South Tennessee State will not have our lives controlled by people in Washington, D.C.

Testing in classes may continue, but no tests may be required of students in any course. Forcing students to take an examination, or indeed to follow any rules in order to complete a course, is a patent violation of the individual liberties guaranteed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. All of us -- assuming we are American -- are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and I’m guessing that most of our students would pursue their happiness right out the door every time a test is given. It would be unpatriotic to restrict their freedom to say “no, thanks.” Plus, there’s that blood pressure thing again: nothing gets it going like a second-semester calculus exam.

Faculty members are required to teach all classes in person, regardless of personal circumstances or preferences or the prevalence of cases of COVID-19 on campus. While that might seem to be a restriction on individual freedom, we can, I think, all agree that we must draw the line somewhere.

I hope that these changes will mollify those who are concerned about the consistency of our policies and our respect for individual liberty. While we at South Tennessee State hope that people will not smoke in buildings, drink and drive, commit sexual assault, or skip exams, we don’t consider it our role to play Big Brother and tell them what to do.

And remember: we’re all in this together. Go Big Green!

Your president

Brian Rosenberg is president emeritus at Macalester College and president in residence at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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The reopening challenge of balancing safety with a normal college experience (opinion)

Just a few weeks ago, colleges and universities across the country anticipated a relatively normal fall semester. Now, with the Delta variant surging, confidence has given way to apprehensiveness. At many institutions, mask mandates have returned, along with fears of an escalating series of “déjà vu all over again” restrictions.

These fears are understandable, especially at campuses with low vaccination rates. But this year is different. We should be able to balance safety and normalcy much more effectively, to have our cake and eat it, too.

We know how to stop the spread of COVID-19 in residential colleges and universities. We also know the costs of doing so, in both human and financial terms. The challenge is to strike the right balance between keeping our campuses safe and offering a normal college experience -- and to strike it in a sharply polarized environment, in which the chasm between the people who focus on safety and those who focus on individual liberty makes it a virtual certainty that whatever protocols we adopt will be sharply contested.

Last year, the focus was on safety. Some higher education institutions offered only remote instruction. Others used a combination of testing, tracing, isolation, quarantine, distancing, masking, enhanced ventilation, de-densification and limits on extracurricular and co-curricular activities to keep outbreaks at bay. While some succeeded and others didn’t, teaching and learning under strict and constantly shifting constraints on many campuses led to faculty exhaustion, staff burnout, student alienation, reduced educational outcomes and a diminished campus experience.

A recent study suggests that campuses with vaccination rates higher than 90 percent can offer a full residential experience this year without the need for extensive testing, masking and distancing. If institutions with lower vaccination rates want to avoid large outbreaks, they will have to deploy some mix of the measures used last year, including distancing and regular screening even of asymptomatic community members.

Of course, every campus is different. Large urban universities face greater challenges in controlling transmission than small rural colleges. Residential colleges have a substantial advantage over commuter campuses. The extent of community spread varies widely from state to state and county to county, and only wealthier institutions can afford the full range of COVID precautions.

Left to their own devices, colleges and universities can adopt the measures best suited to their particular circumstances. Unfortunately, that’s not an option for many institutions. In some states, conservative governors and legislators have prohibited vaccine and even mask mandates, leading to protests and petitions from many faculty, staff, students and parents.

Even for private institutions in liberal states, ours included, renewed public health measures have proven controversial. Both Hamilton College and Cornell University have mandated that all students be fully vaccinated this fall, and Hamilton is requiring employees to be vaccinated as well. With vaccination rates well over 90 percent (in Hamilton’s case, probably over 99 percent), the risks of a COVID-19 outbreak should be small.

Still, much remains uncertain about the impact of the Delta variant. Accordingly, both Hamilton and Cornell now require masking indoors, and both will test students on arrival. To stop the spread of breakthrough cases, Cornell plans to conduct surveillance testing even of some fully vaccinated students and employees; Hamilton may do the same, depending on what arrival tests show. Both institutions hope to discontinue such testing for vaccinated individuals as soon as they are confident that their case numbers are low.

Many faculty, staff, students and parents have welcomed -- indeed, demanded -- these and other precautions, but others have protested vigorously. Some parents have insisted in emails and phone calls and on social media that college administrators have no right to make decisions about medical care for their children. Some employees have chosen to resign rather than be vaccinated, insisting that the mandate infringes on their individual rights and personal beliefs. Similarly, the decision to require that everyone wear masks indoors has prompted some students and parents to insist that the science doesn’t support it (notwithstanding the CDC’s guidance) and that fully vaccinated students shouldn’t have to sacrifice to protect others.

At the same time, others are demanding even stricter precautions. Some faculty have asked to teach online; some students have demanded remote study options.

In many cases, deep convictions appear to rest on misinformation and horror stories shared on social media. Even some highly educated community members express baseless fears that the vaccines will alter their DNA or cause infertility. Still others fear that absent strict control measures, Delta will sweep through the campus, even though, despite sensationalistic media reports, breakthrough cases are rare and usually mild.

Across these fault lines lies one commonality -- a shared frustration with all the constraints, fears and uncertainties of the past 18 months. In this environment, complaints about pandemic protocols often have little to do with the protocols themselves. People are tired, angry, anxious and eager to assign blame.

All members of our institutions’ communities need to remember that the goal is not to eliminate COVID from our campuses, but rather to keep transmission limited without unduly diminishing the student experience. COVID is not going away anytime soon. We need to learn to live with it.

David Wippman is the president of Hamilton College. Glenn C. Altschuler is professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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