COVID Wars Episode II: The Vaccine Strikes Back

David Acevedo

CounterCurrent: Week of 8/22

Step aside, Critical Race Theory. There’s a new hot-button issue in town: mask and vaccine mandates. No matter where you look, the debate over college and university COVID-19 requirements is dominating the news cycle. Naturally, this has heated up in recent weeks as millions of American college students, professors, and staff return to campus for the fall semester.

We know that people haven’t forgotten about big issues like CRT, but it does seem that university administrators and the education media can only focus on one at a time. Right now, that is clearly mask and vaccine mandates. It can be hard to keep track of all the stories flooding our computer screens. However, there are a few case studies that seem to encapsulate the major “camps” we’re seeing when it comes to returning to school this fall.

(A brief note for the sake of transparency: the National Association of Scholars does not have an official stance on masks or vaccines as they pertain to higher education. The personal views of NAS staff and our members vary widely. This complex ball of issues is not easy to untangle, and it is not in the NAS’s purview to try untangling it. For now, we will simply comment on the most important COVID-related trends in the higher ed sphere.)

With that out of the way, back to the case studies …

Full Speed Ahead

Many colleges and universities have required students to get vaccinated for the fall semester, but we haven’t yet had the chance to see if these requirements have teeth, so to speak. That is, until last week. On Friday, the Washington Post reported that nearly 50 students at the University of Virginia were disenrolled from fall classes for being out of compliance with the school’s mandate:

Forty-nine students who registered for fall classes at the University of Virginia have been disenrolled after failing to meet the school’s vaccine mandate, officials said Friday. The campus unveiled its vaccine mandate in May and the overwhelming majority of the campus is in compliance, officials said. More than 96 percent of U-Va. students are vaccinated against the coronavirus … 

Let’s call this the “Full Speed Ahead” approach: require vaccination before FDA approval, and disenroll anyone who does not comply or receive an approved exemption. It did result in an incredibly high vaccination rate, but at what cost?

Not So Fast

Meanwhile, a few governors have taken the opposite approach by banning schools from  requiring masks or vaccines. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has taken center stage on this front—taking most of the heat as well—but he’s not alone. Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Tennessee Governor Bill Lee have likewise pushed back against these requirements, maintaining that it should be up to students and their parents, not schools, to decide whether to mask or receive the vaccine. 

This is the “Not So Fast” approach, but not all are willing to comply. In Florida, a couple of school districts have defied DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates, and so the game of education-funding chicken has begun: “Florida’s Board of Education said on Friday that two school districts would lose some state funding if they did not reverse mask mandates within two days, … A sixth school district on Friday defied a masking mandate ban imposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis … ” Will DeSantis back down, or will schools lose their state funding? Time will tell.

Back to Zoom We Go

Some schools have abandoned ship altogether, reverting to online instruction (at least for now). One such school is Rice University, which opted to both delay the first day and school and keep students online until at least early September. In a bizarre turn of events, though, Rice discovered that a “testing glitch” caused two-thirds of positive tests to be false positives. Nonetheless, the school will remain online as planned, and perhaps beyond its stated September 3 return date. If COVID variants continue to surge as they have, more schools will likely make an abrupt shift to online instruction. Back to Zoom we go, I suppose.

Assuming colleges and universities continue to enforce their vaccination policies (including subsequent booster shots down the line) or move online, I expect that more students will be hesitant to attend in-person college at all. This will likely be out of fear of COVID, the vaccine, or the price of college without the espoused college experience. The 2021-22 school year is beginning to look like a pandemic experiment . . . again.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Braňo, Public Domain

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