Although COVID-19 vaccinations are underway in the U.S.—with nearly 10% of adults having received two doses—much of the population is still wavering on whether they plan to receive their vaccine.
In fact, the university-aged population, from age 18 to 29, are among the least likely to say that they would get vaccinated, which is cause for concern.
In autumn of last year, campuses were viral hot spots, with outbreaks so severe that campuses were forced to close. Before reopening, higher education institutes need to consider how to do so safely.
Currently, universities are being used as mass vaccination sites, yet many staff members are still not eligible for the vaccine. Despite primary and secondary educators receiving priority nationwide, including inclusion in many states’ Phase 1 vaccine strategy, professors were not afforded this privilege.
This is because teachers’ unions are using the vaccine as a prerequisite to return to classrooms. Higher education staff and students are expected to become vaccinated with the general public in April, pending state rollout plans and vaccine supply.
For colleges and universities hoping to reopen in this fall, this is also cause for concern.
Creating mass vaccination site
Although campuses are already used as mass vaccination sites, using it as a site specifically for students and staff will require different tracking. These sites will need to be set up far enough in advance to allow for the second dose of the vaccine to be administered before schools reopen.
For the first two approved vaccines, second doses are needed weeks after the initial dose—yet both vaccinations have a different timeline. Universities and colleges will need to be informed about what vaccines they will be distributing and plan their schedule accordingly, paying attention to how many students and staff will need to receive the vaccine.
If higher education wants to be able to vaccinate all staff and students, they will need to use appointment scheduling software to track each appointment and ensure that the vaccines are administered to the proper individuals.
Even if colleges and universities set up mass vaccination sites for staff and students, they cannot force anyone to get the vaccine—even if those individuals want to attend on-campus events and classes. Although other vaccines are mandatory—including the flu shot at certain universities—there is still legal uncertainty about if the COVID immunization can be mandatory.
Colleges and universities are allowed to offer and suggest alternatives for those who don’t get the vaccine, though. After a year of remote learning, many have robust plans in place to ensure that students and staff are comfortable with online classes.
In order to protect other students and staff, higher education will need to build out hybrid learning approaches for students who refuse the vaccine.
Following the general public rollout, there will likely be a vaccine passport implemented to track who was fully vaccinated and which version they received. Colleges and universities will need to monitor these passports for classes, but also for on-campus events and living.
Although there is no formal vaccine passport strategy in place, this is something that the education sector will need to consider as they begin to formalize their reopening plan.
It poses legal concerns, but higher education isn’t the only institute that will benefit from passports. With Israel already rolling out their passport plan and Biden asking government agencies to look into options, the vaccine passport may be possible soon.
Returning to campus
Even as universities and colleges plan to ramp up their in-person learning, many unknowns remain. For one, many universities are trying to figure out how to contend with being unable to mandate the vaccine among their staff and student populations.
There are also questions about when the general public will be able to receive the vaccination—something that will be necessary to help staff and professors feel safe.
With campuses already in use as mass vaccination sites, allowing colleges and universities to implement their own vaccine strategy and schedule is pivotal for getting them back on track to open in the fall.