Colleges with no vaccine or mask mandates roil parents and professors: 'I'm terrified'

·National Reporter & Producer
·9 min read

Nina Jain gave her 20-year-old son an ultimatum earlier this month: “You have to get vaccinated or you have to go,” she told him.

Although Jain, a welfare worker who resides in Northern California, admits that the last thing she wants to do is kick her son Antonio to the curb, she believes she’s run out of other viable options. In less than a month, Antonio is set to return to college at Waldorf University, a private institution with an enrollment of about 2,500 students in Forest City, Iowa, where there are no COVID-19 vaccine nor mask requirements on campus.

“I’m pushing my son to get this vaccine and he’s digging his heels in the ground,” Jain told Yahoo News. “I’m terrified.”

While she awaits her son’s final answer later this week, Jain says, time is running out.

“I am immunocompromised,” she added. And even though she’s been fully vaccinated, Jain fears if she gets COVID-19 from her son through a breakthrough case, it could leave her severely ill or worse. While she knows her son considers the virus to be real, she says “he doesn’t think it’s going to impact him.”

Jain’s personal experience with her son represents a growing number of nervous Americans, including parents, college professors and school staff members, who are wary of a full return to in-person classes this fall at colleges and universities nationwide that do not have vaccine mandates on campus. This comes after most schools were fully remote or had instituted hybrid learning models over the past academic school year.

Students
Socially distanced students at Boston University in September 2020. (Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

About 400 schools across the country will require students to return to campus fully vaccinated as of July 28, according to a Yahoo News analysis of vaccine requirements for colleges and universities nationwide on the Best Colleges website. But this number is a small fraction of the more than 5,300 colleges and universities within the U.S.

A majority of colleges and universities already require in-person students to have vaccinations against other viral diseases like measles, mumps and rubella, but many schools have been slower to adopt the COVID-19 vaccine while the vaccine is still categorized as “emergency use” only, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Despite rigorous trials involving tens of thousands of people and overwhelming research that shows the three emergency use authorized COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective in preventing the spread of the disease as well as death from it, some Americans remain skeptical. Others find that getting the vaccine to be an inconvenience.

Eric Gibbons, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Weber State University in Utah, which does not have vaccine nor mask mandates, says he’s not “terribly worried” about his own health after being fully vaccinated, but he does worry about the community impact of not having a vaccine requirement at the school.

“If I was in charge, which I'm certainly not, I would prefer to have it [be] mandated,” Gibbons told Yahoo News. “That just seems like an obvious thing to do to make the whole experience of the next academic year go so much more smoothly.”

A woman
A masked woman near Columbia University in New York City. (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

But under state law, he says, it’s impossible.

In April, the Utah state Legislature passed a measure banning vaccine requirements for residents by state government and public colleges and universities.

To combat some of these measures and increase safety in his own classrooms, Gibbons has gone out of his way to encourage students to get the vaccine by adding open-ended vaccination questions to tests for extra credit, and even passing out his personal laptop to encourage students to sign up for vaccine appointments.

“I have spent a good amount of time trying to convince students to get vaccinated,” he said.

Still, he says, some students simply can’t be bothered to get the vaccine, and that’s what’s most frustrating.

“Talking to the students, from what they told me, everyone was open to the idea of getting vaccinated,” he said. “It was mostly the convenience aspect like, ‘Oh, well that's going to be really hard for me to find the time to go to Walgreens or CVS. I can do it later.’”

Most of the schools with COVID-19 vaccine mandates across the country are private schools in mostly Democratic-governed states. Public schools across the country, however, have been more reluctant to implement mandates, fearing legal ramifications and lawsuits from opposing students or parents.

There have already been several lawsuits filed against schools in states like Massachusetts, California and Indiana, among others, saying a vaccination mandate violates the 14th Amendment.

At least one of the lawsuits in Indiana has been dismissed, with U.S. District Court Judge Damon Leichty stating in his decision, “the balance of harms and the public interest favor Indiana University and the determination that it has reasonably determined the best course of action for the health of its academic community this upcoming fall semester.”

A sign
A vaccination clinic on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. (David Ryder/Getty Images)

Rutgers University in New Jersey is an outlier and set the precedent for schools mandating vaccines. As a public university, it was the first college in the nation to require students to get vaccinated ahead of fall classes.

“We are committed to health and safety for all members of our community, and adding COVID-19 vaccination to our student immunization requirements will help provide a safer and more robust college experience for our students,” Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway said in a statement.

Outside of New Jersey, more than a dozen other states disagree with this position.

Sixteen states, most with GOP governors, have limited when its citizens can be asked about their vaccination status or have banned vaccine passports, an attempt to squeeze out those wanting proof of vaccination, through legislation or governor’s executive order, including at school.

Texas Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst said in a statement that a ban on vaccine passports is “a great example of striking a balance between our public health priorities, civil liberties, and economic freedoms.”

Similar legislation across the country has made it more complicated for many colleges to determine a student’s vaccination status, making it more difficult to control potential outbreaks and plan for future challenges.

This has contributed to mounting frustration between Americans who have been vaccinated and those who have not, particularly those who choose to move around maskless as if they have had the vaccine. For many medical professionals, schools that do not mandate vaccines on campus are doing the public a disservice.

Jason Rodriguez, right, and Camila Gutierrez
Camila Gutierrez, left, receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a facility in Miami. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and a public health professor at George Washington University, believes that as a whole, “we need [to] make a decision as a society” about getting out of this pandemic.

“You can remain unvaccinated if you so choose, but if you want to be in public and potentially can infect others with a dangerous and sometimes fatal disease that is highly transmissible, there is an obligation of society,” Wen said on Washington Post Live on Tuesday.

The CDC estimates that more than 97 percent of all COVID-19 patients in hospitals right now are unvaccinated. And as of July 22, the agency reports that 35 percent of U.S. counties are “experiencing high levels of community transmission” and cases are on the rise in 90 percent of U.S. jurisdictions, with outbreaks in parts of the country with low vaccination rates, according to their website.

On Tuesday, the CDC reversed course on indoor mask policy. The agency now recommends that fully vaccinated people begin wearing masks indoors again in places with high COVID-19 transmission rates. This includes kids and young adults wearing masks in schools this fall.

The White House has made known their desire for all schools to fully reopen in the fall, but they concede that the implementation of the logistics is fully up to decision makers at the state or local level.

“Our plan and our objective and our desire and commitment is to push forward and ensure 100 percent of schools are open across the country,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a White House press briefing last Friday.

Jen Psaki
White House press secretary Jen Psaki. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

But with the cases of COVID-19 rising in the U.S. due to the Delta variant, so are concerns.

“It is a civic duty for people who can to receive the vaccine because it’s not just protecting yourself, it’s also protecting others,” J. Michael Butler, a Kenan Distinguished Professor of History at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., told Yahoo News.

Butler has been frustrated by how politicized getting a vaccine has become and feels unsafe about the upcoming semester.

“I don't know if the students I come in contact with are immunocompromised,” he said. “I don't know what their predicament is. I have a hard time dealing with the fact that because of selfishness and a desire to not be inconvenienced in any way, [students are choosing not to get vaccinated].” 

The move to ensure Flagler College has no COVID-19 vaccine or mask mandate is thanks to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. He was one of the first governors in the country to ban any business or government entity from denying anyone service based on their vaccination status, including schools who receive state funding.

On Tuesday, DeSantis mocked the new CDC mask guidance and vowed that there would be no more lockdowns or vaccine mandates across the state.

“Did you not get the CDC’s memo? I don’t see you complying," DeSantis said to a crowd of nearly 500 mostly maskless supporters inside an indoor hotel ballroom in Salt Lake City. “It is very important that we say unequivocally no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no to mandates.”

Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

Statewide decisions like these have put educators like Butler in a compromising position.

Butler finds it somewhat ironic that Flagler College, a school that prides itself on small class sizes and faculty-student interaction, has no mandated vaccines or masks for fall classes.

“Why, when a mask requirement is scientifically proven to reduce the spread of an airborne virus, would we decide to not mandate one on campus?” he asked. “If it just saves one person, it's worth it.”

Cover thumbnail photo Illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2), Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

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