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Margo Brault, an instructor of French at Louisiana State University, invited members of the university's Board of Supervisors to take a mental trip with her to her assigned classroom last week.
"From here, we'd walk to Allen Hall and open the west door and go down a flight of stairs into the basement, where the ceiling is low and the hallway is packed with students during class change," Brault told the members during their regular board meeting last Friday, which was held with 50 percent capacity. "Then we will turn right into a small hallway, where we will find again on the right the door to Room 38. Inside this small room there are no windows but 24 seats.
That's where she teaches her 19 students "for one hour, three hours in a row, 11:30, 12:30, 1:30," she explained. "I will teach them Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for the next 15 weeks. This will be a petri dish for the Delta variant."
Amid a surge in coronavirus cases fueled by the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant, faculty and staff members at Louisiana State and elsewhere are questioning their colleges' plans.
LSU is mandating masking but not vaccination when classes begin on Aug. 23. The university is planning for normal classroom occupancy, although professors teaching classes of 100 students or more will have the option of switching to a hybrid teaching format where only 50 percent of the students are in person in the classroom during "peak infection periods."
The university is currently in a peak infection period according to LSU's Health and Medical Advisory Committee. Louisiana has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in per capita COVID-19 cases. Its rate of 120 cases per 100,000 people is almost four times the national average of 36 cases.
Hospitalizations in the state are at record highs and just 38 percent of the state's residents are fully vaccinated, compared to a national average of 50 percent. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, fewer than a quarter are fully vaccinated.
The United Campus Workers of Louisiana is calling on the university to allow all faculty, staff and graduate students to work remotely, and to provide hazard pay for essential workers like custodians and facilities and residential life staff. The organization also wants the university to require twice-weekly testing of unvaccinated students in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that colleges in areas of substantial or high transmission implement "universal entry screening and expanded serial screening testing at least twice weekly if sufficient testing capacity is available." LSU is planning on requiring a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination upon entry followed by once-a-month testing for unvaccinated students.
About 340 faculty members signed an open letter to President William F. Tate IV last week asking the university to return to protocols in place during the previous academic year that allowed professors to choose between remote, hybrid and in-person teaching modes.
"The situation in Louisiana is more dire now than at any point since the spring of 2020, when LSU went entirely remote because of the dangers posed by the pandemic," the letter states. "It is unconscionable that you would ask faculty, staff and students for a full return to campus under these conditions when we know these alternative options are available and that they work.
"This is not the situation we wished to be in for this semester, but it is the reality that we face because of the institution's failure to request approval for mandatory Covid vaccination on campus."
Under LSU's policies, faculty wanting remote teaching arrangements for COVID-related medical conditions can seek accommodations through the Office of Civil Rights & Title IX.
Ernie Ballard, an LSU spokesman, said deans have also been directed to work with academic departments "to accommodate faculty who are immunocompromised or have similar family issues," with such situations handled on a case-by-case basis by each department.
Ballard noted that President Tate has said that the university plans to mandate vaccination against COVID-19 as soon as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approves a vaccine. (The three vaccines currently publicly available are authorized through the FDA's "emergency use authorization" process).
"[U]ntil then, we have to do a full analysis on when it is appropriate to encroach on an individual's constitutionally protected fundamental liberties," Ballard said. "Currently, the Louisiana Department of Health has not included any COVID vaccinations in the mandatory schedule for schools in Louisiana. Our state's attorney general has also expressed his view that it is illegal to mandate a vaccine that has only received emergency use authorization. Taking these factors into consideration, as a state government entity, we do not believe mandating a vaccine is a viable option for us at this time. We do, however, strongly encourage our students, faculty, staff and other members of our community to take the personal responsibility for getting vaccinated to help ensure a safe and successful fall semester."
LSU administrators, like those at many other colleges earlier this year, were planning for what they expected to be a relatively "normal" fall semester.
"Assuming that vaccinations proceed as expected, we anticipate that by fall, we will be able to operate the way we did before the onset of the pandemic," the university said in a Feb. 24 announcement. "In other words, we expect the vast majority of courses to be delivered face-to-face once again, and for the majority of campus operations to be back to normal. We expect that overall, fall 2021 will operate similarly to fall 2019."
Throughout the spring and early summer as vaccinations became widely available, reason for such optimism grew: case counts dropped, and the CDC said in May that vaccinated individuals could, by and large, drop their face masks.
Then the Delta variant of the virus started spreading, cases started rising, and concerning evidence emerged regarding the ability of vaccinated people to spread the variant, prompting the CDC to revise its guidance to once again recommend universal masking, regardless of vaccination status, in indoor public spaces.
Yet for all the concerning developments, the consensus from public and college health officials is that the vaccines work and remain the best single tool for ending the pandemic. More than 600 colleges have required COVID-19 vaccination this fall for all students and employees, according to a tracker maintained by The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the American College Health Association has recommended that colleges mandate vaccines for on-campus students wherever the law allows them to do so.
A. David Paltiel and Jason L. Schwartz, professors at the Yale School of Public Health, argue in a recent modeling study, released as a preprint, that colleges that achieve high vaccination rates of 90 percent or higher can resume in-person activities relatively safely, without needing routine asymptomatic testing, while a similar "return to normalcy" for a college with vaccination rates around 50 percent "would require daily asymptomatic testing of unvaccinated individuals."
"Vaccination coverage is the most powerful tool available to college administrators to achieve a safe return to pre-pandemic operations this fall," they write in the article, which has not yet been peer-reviewed. "Given the breadth of potential outcomes in the face of uncontrollable and uncertain factors, even colleges that achieve high vaccination coverage should be prepared to reinstitute testing and distancing policies on short notice."
The article notes that the cost of testing has come way down, and now can be done by higher education institutions for as low as about $2.50 per test.
Paltiel said in an interview that he wants "to force university decision-makers to confront the fact that they are in control of a number of different instruments … Among those instruments at their disposal are first and foremost the level of vaccination coverage they require of their students; second, how much testing they are requiring of their students; third, the degree to which they impose some kind of ceiling on the number of infections they consider tolerable; and finally the nonpharmaceutical interventions," such as social distancing.
Paltiel noted that distancing may be a less appealing -- and more disruptive -- strategy than many others in the arsenal. He quoted an unnamed college leader who wrote to him to say that "if vaccine efficacy were to drop much lower we would use more intensive testing and more aggressive face mask requirements before other measures like increased distancing, which, as you well know, would be very costly and disruptive in university settings especially in a year where we're planning on bringing in our normal complement of students and then some."
Neil J. Sehgal, assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said on Twitter that frequent testing may be the most practicable way to deal with a challenge to in-person learning presented for colleges in the CDC's current guidance, which recommends that even vaccinated individuals be tested 3-5 days after exposure to a close contact with COVID-19. He wrote a series of Tweets that regular testing may be the most feasible way to ensure a student potentially exposed while attending a large lecture class actually gets tested in the recommended window.
Sehgal said in an interview that colleges that planned for full on-campus density should reconsider their plans.
"The best time to do that was when the CDC changed its recommendation," he said. "The second best time is now."
"The reality is where we are right now it doesn't make a lot of sense to me to be planning for this to be a full in-person semester when transmission in our community is right about where it was at a time we felt in-person instruction wasn't safe."
Back at LSU, some faculty feel similarly.
"We're returning to campus almost as if what's going on in the outside world isn't happening," said June Pulliam, an instructor of English and a member of the United Campus Workers of Louisiana's steering committee.
"When your house is on fire you don't return inside and sit down and have dinner," she said. "Our house is on fire."