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Will higher education be prepared for Covid-19 by the fall semester?

Updated: Aug 15, 2021

When the Covid-19 pandemic started to emerge in 2020, educational institutions of all sizes were among the first to report large numbers of cases. Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 700,000 cases of Covid-19 have been detected on American campuses and universities and at least 50 institutions had over 1000 cases in 2021 alone. Particular risks for communicable diseases were prevalent there as many individuals shared close contact indoors and also shared living quarters. Additionally, the younger students were less likely to adopt safety precautions such as mask wearing and handwashing.

As a result, schools created extensive safety measures, and many conducted partial or complete remote learning over the 2020-2021 academic year. Students universally deplored the distanced practices as they missed traditional campus life while parents had to fight the challenges and interactions with their peers and educators.

With the advent of Covid-19 vaccinations, many institutions plan on reopening fully for in-person classes. To enhance safety, increasing the number of vaccinated persons there has been a key focus of higher education administer. Every locale has debated whether to make these vaccinations required. Despite pockets of local oppositions to these measures, as of 6/17/21 over 500 colleges and universities intend to mandate vaccinations in some form for students and faculty.

Mandating and enforcing Covid-19 vaccinations amongst its student will be a herculean task for institutions of higher learning. Although many already require mandatory vaccination for measles, mumps, and rubella, particular opposition has been seen for Covid-19 vaccinations. Critics cite that these vaccines are not fully federally approved. Several states have outlawed mandating Covid-19 vaccination as a requirement by any business or government entity. Advocates of personal liberty have opposed some of these mandates.

Despite these arguments, many private and public institutions have been able to mandate Covid-19 vaccinations for their communities. These colleges and universities will have incredible difficulties in implementing these mandates. There will be several key issues. Monitoring who has been vaccinated and how well will be potentially very complicated. No central vaccine registry exists where confirmation of vaccination status can be verified. Since some vaccines can be single or double shot, they will have to ensure that individuals took all their necessary jabs. Also, many students will be internationally based with different quality vaccines and even more difficulty in verification.

Enforcement of who has been vaccinated will be difficult. Educational institutions will want to limit the exposure of unvaccinated individuals to vulnerable populations. Consideration needs to be given to whether standard institutional access passes need to be modified to prevent certain types of access to unvaccinated individuals. The actual enforcement of these individuals may also be dangerous to security guards and other personnel may be vulnerable to infection from those carrying infections. They may be at more risk from having to screen those who may be harboring dangerous variants that can breakthrough some vaccines and cause infections.

After monitoring who has been vaccinated, continued challenges will persist. Future issues include the need for monitoring who will need boosters when changes from current guidance gives clarity on this topic. Monitoring of other airborne diseases may become necessary to minimize the noise associated with respiratory illnesses. These latter shots may acquire increased importance with a potentially severe flu season in the fall and winter of 2021 and 2022.

Educational facilities will need to balance the difficulties associated monitoring vaccination status with the implementation of and limitations of this practice. They will need to consider the value of supplemental Covid-19 testing. To promote the safety of their campuses, they need to consider all the potential solutions in this area. They also must appreciate the flexibility of each solution and the value each has in the enforcement of their policies. In-person classes in the fall of 2021 may be feasible but institutions of higher learning need to prepare now.

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