COVID-19 Roundup: A Shifting State of Play

Vaccines and other public safety measures continue to be in flux at colleges across the country as the Delta variant spreads, positive cases rise and political and legal battles continue.

August 6, 2021

The University of Maine System announced Wednesday that it will require all students taking in-person classes or involved in on-campus activities during the fall semester to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The move was a switch in policy prompted by the increasing cases of people infected with the Delta variant of the coronavirus across the country and in Maine.

Unvaccinated students were previously allowed on campus if they wore masks inside university buildings and were tested for COVID-19 twice a week, the Bangor Daily News reported. But university officials feared disruptions to the semester by the spread of the Delta variant among students and staff and "said the change was necessary to preserve public health on campuses and their surrounding communities," the newspaper reported.

System administrators had previously announced a plan to impose a vaccine mandate once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a COVID vaccine for general use. The vaccines currently in use have so far only been authorized by the agency for emergency use.

"The University of Maine System began signaling in the spring semester its intention to require vaccination once full FDA approval had been issued for one of the COVID-19 vaccines," a statement on the system's website said. "UMS is expediting requirement plans amidst growing concerns about the severity and infectiousness of the Delta variant."

The statement said more than 10,300 university community members have already voluntarily verified their vaccination status using the UMS online portal.

"Students who verify their status or get their first shot toward full immunity by Aug. 20 will remain eligible to participate in on-campus activities in the fall semester," the statement said, adding that exemptions to the vaccine requirement would be given "for a documented medical contraindication or a sincerely held religious belief."

Exempted students and those in the process of becoming fully vaccinated will be required to be tested for the virus, wear masks and follow other safety practices in order to participate in on-campus activities. Classes begin Aug. 30, and all eight universities in the system will be hosting vaccination clinics on campus or working to connect students, faculty and staff with community-based vaccination resources, according to the system statement.

“Students, their families, our faculty, and staff are right to be concerned about the highly contagious nature of the Delta variant,” University of Maine president Joan Ferrini-Mundy, who is also chair of the UMS Science Advisory Board, said in the statement. “Vaccination reduces the severity of infection. It is a sensible and now required part of our plans to protect the health of our faculty, staff, and students this fall.”

Fall semester classes begin at Clemson University Aug. 18, and despite the rising cases of COVID-19 in South Carolina, the university will no longer have some of the public safety measures that were in place a year ago, The Greenville News reported.

Clemson president Jim Clements said state laws now prevent the university from requiring social distancing and masking protocols. All the buildings on campus will also operate at full capacity.

"While we all had hoped this pandemic would be behind us when we arrived in August, it is clear the Delta variant has changed the dynamics and heightened our need for continued diligence to protect our students, faculty and staff," Clements said in a statement.

"The guidelines and requirements -- including pre-arrival and ongoing testing and our very strong recommendation for everyone to wear a mask when indoors -- are based upon scientific data and recommendations from public health experts, while also being mindful of the state mandates, which place limitations on our mitigation strategies."

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While Clemson students will not be required to get vaccinated because of the state prohibition, they will still be required to undergo COVID-19 testing, "including a pre-arrival and move-in test for those who live on campus," according to The Greenville News. Faculty, staff and students living off campus will be required to be tested before arrival.

Birmingham-Southern College appears to have found a clever workaround for Alabama’s law restricting vaccine mandates, according to Kyle Whitmire, a local columnist for the Alabama Media Group.

The college will require all unvaccinated students to be tested weekly for COVID-19 and will charge all students a $500 fee for the testing. However, students who have been vaccinated or choose to be vaccinated while on campus will be exempt from the weekly testing and will get a $500 rebate. Unvaccinated students will also be required to wear masks on campus and to quarantine whenever they come in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

"In short, the college has made vaccination the path of least resistance for students. Faculty and staff will also have to be tested regularly unless they are vaccinated," Whitmire wrote in a column for "But vaccination is not required. And that’s the important point."

State Senator Arthur Orr, who sponsored the law that prohibits “institutions of education from requiring additional vaccines as a condition of attendance,” is not amused. He recently accused college officials of breaking the law and characterized their actions as a “constructive denial” of the state prohibition and a “constructive barrier against unvaccinated students.” He said college officials are also "constructively denying" admission to students who cannot afford to pay the $500 fee.

A George Mason University law professor is so unhappy about reopening policies at the Virginia institution that he has sued its leaders in federal court, according to Reuters.

Todd Zywicki, who has taught at the Antonin Scalia School of Law since 1998, believes George Mason's requirement that unvaccinated employees wear masks on campus and submit to COVID-19 testing violates his constitutional rights, Reuters reported. He filed suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia claiming that the policy is "unmistakably coercive" and an "unlawful mandate" that places unfair additional burdens on unvaccinated employees.

Zywicki said he had COVID last year and that virus antibodies in his system should allow him not to have to wear a mask.

According to the complaint, George Mason requires employees to disclose their vaccination status or face disciplinary action, including unpaid leave, “possible loss of employment” and denial of merit pay increases.

Zywicki may be the first faculty member at a U.S. university to sue over masking and social distancing requirements for the unvaccinated, according to the Reuters article. Students have filed suit at five universities challenging the institutions’ vaccination mandates. A federal judge in Indiana last month declined to block Indiana University’s vaccine mandate, and the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision Monday.

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