Déjà Vu All Over Again?

Our challenge now is to strike the right balance between offering safety from COVID-19 and a normal college experience -- and in a sharply polarized environment, write David Wippman and Glenn C. Altschuler.

August 19, 2021
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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.

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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.

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

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