While some U.S. colleges and universities are mandating masks and vaccines for students and staff, others are eschewing such mandates—leading to simmering controversies on campus, and even prompting some professors to quit their jobs in response.
Webinar recording: Vaccination success stories and mythbusting
So far, more than 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States have implemented vaccine mandates for students and staff, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and hundreds of colleges and universities have implemented mask mandates.
But many others haven't. In 15 states, laws have been passed prohibiting higher education institutions from implementing vaccine mandates, and 9 states have banned or restricted school mask mandates. Professors in these states can tell students they're "strongly encouraged" or "expected" to wear masks but generally can't enforce such policies, the New York Times reports.
However, some institutions in states that have banned mandates are defying state policy, including three major public universities in Arizona—the University of Arizona, Arizona State, and Northern Arizona University—that are requiring masks in class.
In places where masks and vaccines aren't required, some professors say they are put in a difficult position. Matthew Boedy, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, said more than two-thirds of the first-year students in his writing class showed up unmasked.
Since there was no way to determine who was and wasn't vaccinated, Boedy said, "It isn't a visual hellscape, like hospitals, it's more of an emotional hellscape."
At the University of Georgia, Irwin Bernstein, an 88-year-old psychology professor who came out of retirement to teach again, posted a "No mask, No class" sign in his classroom and was told by his department head to take it down since it was in "violation of the governor's order."
During his next class, a student refused to wear a mask and, in response, Bernstein announced he was retiring again and left the class mid-session, the Times reports.
Timothy Wilson, an engineering professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, resigned on the first day of classes, saying in an online essay that he was HIV-positive and believed the university's mask-optional policy was "wrong."
And Cody Luedtke, a biology instructor and lab coordinator at Perimeter College, part of Georgia State University, said she cried at the thought of teaching in a classroom without masks, and was ultimately fired after refusing to do so. "I just couldn't perform a job duty that went against my morals and my desire to protect my students and the broader community," she said.
Becky Hawbaker, an assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa's College of Education and president of United Faculty, a union representing 600 faculty members at the university, said policies banning mask or vaccine mandates can be difficult for professors to handle.
"It's completely demoralizing to realize that our health and safety has been trumped by politics," Hawbaker said. "It seems like you know a train wreck is coming and you're sounding the alarm, and no one seems to listen."
Meanwhile, at some colleges and universities, incentives for vaccinations are being abandoned in favor of imposing penalties or restrictions upon those who are not vaccinated.
At Quinnipiac University, students who are unvaccinated will be fined up to $200 per week and will lose access to the campus' Wi-Fi until they get vaccinated. According to John Morgan, associate VP for public relations at the university, 150 of the 600 previously unvaccinated students emailed have since provided vaccine information.
At Rutgers University, unvaccinated students may lose access to their email and campus housing, and at the University of Virginia, more than 200 unvaccinated students were forced out of the school before the semester even began.
The Ohio State University has mandated that all faculty and staff be fully vaccinated by Nov. 15. All students who are not vaccinated without an approved exemption will not be allowed to attend in-person classes or have on-campus housing in the spring, and their email and other resources may be revoked.
"Requiring the vaccine was the right thing to do," Benjamin Johnson, a spokesperson for the university, said. "This isn't particularly new for us. … We have mandated a number of different vaccines for students for years."
Some mask and vaccine mandate policies at colleges and universities have ended up in court.
A group of students at Indiana University challenged the school's vaccine mandate, saying it violated their constitutional right to "bodily integrity, autonomy, and medical choice."
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit refused to block the mandate, saying the university can make its own decisions on what is necessary to keep students safe in communal settings. The students then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which also refused to block the mandate.
Meanwhile, at the University of South Carolina, state Attorney General Alan Wilson sent the school a letter saying it could not implement a mask mandate per a budget provision passed by the state legislature.
In response, Richard Creswick, an astrophysics professor at the university, and his wife, Vickie Eslinger, filed a lawsuit arguing the provision cited by Wilson didn't prevent a universal mask mandate. The state's Supreme Court took up the case and ruled 6-0 in favor of Creswick and Eslinger, leading the university to immediately implement a mask mandate, with other state colleges doing the same.
Creswick said that, after the ruling, he started hearing from professors at other colleges in South Carolina. "They're calling me a hero," he said. (Hartocollis, New York Times, 9/8; Andrews, Kaiser Health News, 9/9; Payne, Politico, 9/7; Alonso/Sutton, CNN, 8/18; National Academy for State Health Policy, 9/2)
Join Christopher Kerns and Brandi Greenberg as they mythbust erroneous but common misconceptions about national and global vaccine efforts.
Create your free account to access 2 resources each month, including the latest research and webinars.
You have 2 free members-only resources remaining this month remaining this month.
Never miss out on the latest innovative health care content tailored to you.