Universities planning to return to in-person learning this fall will likely still require mask-wearing and social distancing weeks into the first semester. Alex Kafka, a senior editor at the Chronicle for Higher Education, says that many of the colleges and universities he and his colleagues have spoken to have “cautious optimism” about a return to normalcy this fall.
“If a coronavirus variation runs amuck and vaccinations don’t keep up, of course those plans could crumble,” Kafka told Texas Standard.
Kafka says health experts are advising students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus in person. But it’s unclear if universities can mandate shots since none of the vaccines are officially approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They are only approved for use under an Emergency Use Authorization because of the pandemic. Kafka says it’s possible the FDA will fully approve at least one of the vaccines soon.
“The health officials I spoke to think that by early summer, late spring, full FDA approval of one or more vaccines will come down,” he said. “And that’s going to change the whole picture, and it will be more like measles, mumps, rubella or the common variant of meningitis – those vaccines. And in most cases, it is legal to mandate those.”
An executive order issued by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits public universities from requiring students to be vaccinated for COVID-19 before returning to campus. However, at least one private university in Texas is requiring vaccinations, with some exemptions allowed.
Kafka says recent, large surveys of students and parents indicate a majority of students are eager to return to campus, even if that includes requirements for vaccination and ongoing rules about mask-wearing and social distancing.
“To be clear, there is a minority that is hesitant, but the majority are stir-crazy and they want to get back on campus,” Kafka said.
But colleges and universities also have to think about their bottom line. Kafka says even after cash infusions from three federal relief measures during the pandemic, institutions of higher education in America are collectively still tens of billions of dollars in the red.
“A lot of colleges were in precarious financial states before the pandemic,” he said. “So, yeah, they want to get back to work the way they used to.”