Sounding the Alarm: 2021-2022 COVID Risks at Unprotected Colleges and Universities (guest post)


Some faculty will be teaching this fall at schools in areas with low vaccination rates, whose administrators cannot or will not require vaccinations, mask-wearing, or social distancing. What, if anything, should faculty at such places, and possibly elsewhere, do?

In this guest post*, Jeremy Fischer, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, asks these and related questions, hoping to generate suggestions and feedback from Daily Nous readers.

Sounding the Alarm:
2021-2022 COVID Risks at
Unprotected Colleges and Universities

by Jeremy Fischer

Many colleges and universities now (1) mandate COVID-vaccinations, (2) require universal mask-wearing and social distancing in the classroom and in most campus buildings, and/or (3) are located in regions with high COVID-vaccination rates. In contrast to these relatively well-protected institutions, let’s call institutions that fail to meet any of these conditions “unprotected.”

One unprotected institution is the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where I work. Alabama state law SB 267, signed on May 24th of this year, prohibits state-funded schools from requiring students to be COVID-vaccinated. Indeed, student COVID-vaccination status is not to be monitored at all on campuses. This latter prohibition, in turn, renders unenforceable my university’s policy that all and only unvaccinated students must wear masks and maintain 3 feet of social distance from others indoors. That policy, in effect, is an honor system. And if classrooms will be anything like grocery stores around here, which generally have the same honor system, then very few students will wear masks or maintain social distance. (Enforceability issues aside, public health agencies disagree about this policy’s merits: the W.H.O. recommends that fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks indoors, while the C.D.C. does not.) Furthermore, only 34% of Alabama residents are fully vaccinated, compared to, say, 63% of Massachusettsians, 56% of Oregonians, and 52% of Californians. (In some ways, this number overstates community protection against COVID. For example, I regularly have students from DeKalb County, Alabama, which boasts a vaccination rate of 21%.)

My institution adds two further twists. First, full-time faculty (with only rare exceptions) must teach most of their classes in person in the upcoming academic year. Second, individual instructors may not require their students to wear masks during class or office hours. This second “twist” might seem to be a trivial implication of the university’s mask policy, but it is not. Instructors may prohibit a large range of activities in the classroom that are otherwise permitted on campus (e.g., eating, talking, using computers or cellphones), when they judge that those activities might interfere with reasonable pedagogical or safety-related goals. Going maskless is explicitly excluded from such prohibitable activity.

We all hope that COVID will retreat before the school year begins, or at least that our institutional activities will not amplify its spread. However, those scenarios seem unlikely.[1] Given the recent spread of the highly contagious Delta variant—which is driving a surge in cases in Israel and the U.K. (both of which have more highly vaccinated populations than Alabama), as well as more locally in Arkansas, Missouri, Florida, and Alabama—instructors at unprotected institutions confront hard ethical questions, such as:

  1. Are we obligated to pressure school administrators into implementing more protective safety policies? If so, which policies? And, given the undemocratic structure typical of our schools, what forms of advocacy are most likely to succeed?
  2. How might we protect our more vulnerable colleagues—including adjunct and junior colleagues who have ethical reservations about teaching in person, and colleagues either with compromised immune systems or who share households with immunocompromised people—from administrative imperatives to teach in-person?
  3. Might teaching in-person at this point in the COVID pandemic render some instructors objectionably, and avoidably, complicit in whatever COVID-related harms might consequently befall our communities or, indeed, the world (say, in the unlikely event of contributing to the creation of another, and possibly worse, variant)? If so, what kinds of actions might we be obligated to take in response?

In my view, these questions lack easy answers—Hence my wanting to ask them on Daily Nous.

The personal and social costs of even partial lockdowns are significant. Higher education matters to our students, who are, after all, adults capable of making up their own minds about whether to enroll this fall. Moreover, many unvaccinated people have had ample opportunity to get vaccinated, but have chosen not to do so. This choice may make them substantively responsible—and may relieve others of responsibility—for whatever COVID-related illness they might suffer. And it may seem perverse to claim that individual instructors might be acting objectionably, when they have little or no voice in shaping their university’s safety policies. More plausibly, perhaps, they themselves are being wronged by university administrators who require them to teach in unsafe conditions and who restrict their academic freedom to choose their teaching modality.

On the other hand, this is a public health matter: individual adults’ personal choices might gravely impact others. Further complicating the issue is that some of those who decline the vaccines are persuaded by widespread disinformation, political tribalism, and fear-mongering regarding vaccines. So it’s unclear whether every unvaccinated person has been placed in a reasonably good position to make their vaccination choice—and, if not, then public policy should not yet shift the burden of the disease onto them. Finally, given the imminent risks of the Delta variant in low-vaccination regions, it might seem doubtful whether instructors at unprotected institutions are permitted to risk the public health in order to convene philosophy classes. We have agency, and administrators may be persuadable regarding online teaching. To be sure, it is gratifying to hear administrators characterize liberal arts professors as providing essential in-person services (finally!). But after years of badgering us to teach online, I doubt that many administrators have actually had an epiphany about the irreplaceable value of in-person pedagogy. Organized efforts to teach more classes online might succeed. Perhaps eminent professors with strong relationships to administrators could insist on teaching online, or refuse to teach maskless students. And, if all else fails and the number of regional hospitalizations and deaths soars, some of us might consider resigning in protest.

As we all decide what to do in the fall, it might be useful to publicly discuss these matters. Readers can probably guess how I’m inclined to answer these questions. But for what it’s worth: it seems to me that professors with job security at unprotected institutions should consider organizing with staff members to demand more protective basic safety measures, such as indoor masking requirements, 6-feet social distance requirements, incentives for vaccinations, and remote learning and working options for whoever wants them. Perhaps a petition is a good way to begin the process. (Here’s mine, which anyone is welcome to adapt and use locally.) Moreover, if hospitalizations and deaths do surge in our regions—as may be happening already—we might also consider more urgent and spirited actions, such as protests, walk-outs, demands for unpaid leave, and even resignations. For, ultimately, I do worry that convening in-person philosophy classes in such circumstances may be morally impermissible.

Alternately, we could defer to the safety task forces that determine these policies. It is fairly clear, though, that politics alone drives much of the variation, across institutions and across state lines, in the protectiveness of COVID-safety policies. Senior professors who share the concerns raised here may have a social responsibility to sound the alarm about the dangers of these political games: dangers to the public health as well as to our colleagues, our students, their families, and the communities in which we live and work.


[1] Evidence that institutions of higher education might amplify the spread of COVID-19 includes Hannah Lu, et al., “Are college campuses superspreaders? A data-driven modeling study,” Computer Methods in Biomechanics and Biomedical Engineering (2021) DOI: 10.1080/10255842.2020.1869221; Daniel Mangrum and Paul Niekamp, “JUE Insight: College student travel contributed to local COVID-19 spread,” Journal of Urban Economics (2020) DOI:10.1016/j.jue.2020.103311; and Martin S. Andersen et al., “College Openings, Mobility, and the Incidence of COVID-19,” medRxiv 2020.09.22.20196048, DOI: 10.1101/2020.09.22.20196048. But uncertainty remains: see, e.g., Benneyan J, Gehrke C, Ilies I, Nehls N, “Community and Campus COVID-19 Risk Uncertainty Under University Reopening Scenarios: Model-Based Analysis” JMIR Public Health Surveill (2021), DOI: 10.2196/24292.

guest
28 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Moti Gorin
1 month ago

I agree that these are complex and difficult questions. For my part, I, along with some colleagues, are forming a bioethics committee of sorts on our faculty council. This should provide a venue through which our faculty can speak with a collective voice on these matters. Will it make a difference? I don’t know, but it could help sympathetic higher administrators make the case, since otherwise they are likely to feel most of the pressure from the other direction (worries about litigation in response to mandates, worries about anti-vaxxers in state government making a stink; etc.)

As is often–usually–the case, and as you say, the decisions made by higher-level authorities are largely political, shaped by their assessment of risks with respect to lawsuits, public relations, and so on, and so the most effective strategies will be those that find ways that make the relevant risks of not mandating vaccination and masks more salient. Large-scale protest by faculty may do the trick, but as we all know, most faculty don’t have “rocking the boat” on their Microsoft Office calendars.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Moti Gorin
Jeremy Fischer
Reply to  Moti Gorin
1 month ago

Working through the faculty council (or, in my school, the ‘faculty senate’) seems promising, Moti. It should, at least, provide an institutional venue for these discussions and a place for relationships between concerned faculty to develop. Interesting work!

As a faculty senate member myself, I wonder: Will you be soliciting the opinions of the broader faculty? Or is the idea rather to communicate ideas from the bioethics committee to the broader faculty (or to the faculty council or the administration)? Or both?

Has anyone else found success by working through faculty councils on this type of issue? Any advice?Report

Moti Gorin
Reply to  Jeremy Fischer
1 month ago

Jeremy, we haven’t answered those questions yet. It’s early days for this committee. It’s generally better to solicit more rather than fewer opinions, but this has costs (logistics, more commitment from committee members, etc.). At this point the idea is to provide some kind of mechanism through which faculty can voice suggestions, concerns, etc., with the collective stamp of faculty council (or senate, in your case) behind that voice. Beyond that general mission and a list of some questions we’d like to ask, we haven’t yet gotten far.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Moti Gorin
Alex Feldman
1 month ago

Last summer, the United Campus Workers of Georgia (of which I was a member before I decided to get out of academia) put together a petition about COVID safety that attracted more than 12,000 signatures (https://www.change.org/p/the-georgia-board-of-regents-safer-and-more-equitable-higher-education-upon-return-to-campus). A major newspaper in Georgia reported on it (the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). We also did mass call-ins to the work offices of various members of the Board of Regents and held protests outside their offices. We submitted loads of open records requests. We cultivated relationships with local reporters. We tried to publicize the massive conflicts of interest and shady dealings members of the BoR were engaged in. We did a lot of other things too, including, most simply, just trying to track how the accommodations process was working at different universities. Fighting at the statewide level seemed like the way to go, although there’s a struggle to be had at the university level too. We did eventually get a mask requirement last summer, but of course that was gone immediately when the CDC made their announcement about vaccinated people.

I don’t know how effective any of these tactics would be at the moment, but the larger point is that there are dozens of low-key ways college professors can engage in collective action around COVID safety. Perhaps the lowest-key way (to be clear, none of this is without risk) is just to talk to your students and ask them to sign your petition!Report

Jeremy Fischer
Reply to  Alex Feldman
1 month ago

Thank you so much for sharing this wealth of ideas, Alex! And congratulations on the successes you all enjoyed last year. I especially admire the concision and directness of your (UCWG’s) petition.

I’m curious to hear more about what kinds of open records requests you found most useful.

I’d be especially interested to learn of other low-key ways professors can engage these issues, either from yourself or from others.Report

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  Alex Feldman
1 month ago

Please don’t ever ask your students to sign a petition.Report

Andrew Mills
1 month ago

Regarding your (1), it seems that those of us who teach at institutions which are not legally barred from instituting vaccine mandates or mask mandates have a particularly strong obligation to pressure our institutions to put those mandates in place. I have already reached out to my administration to do so (though I am not hopeful of success: financially strapped institutions are loathe to drive away even one tuition paying student). Much as all of us who can get vaccinated should do so in order to protect those who are medically unable to, so those of us at schools that can mandate vaccines and masks should do so in order to protect those who work and attend schools that cannot.

I don’t know what forms of advocacy and pressure will work best–that is institution-specific, I should think–so I don’t have a full answer to your (1), but it seems that we should work whatever levers we have access to. (Letter writing, personal conversation, petitions, organizing faculty & students, etc.)Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Andrew Mills
Fritz Warfield
Reply to  Andrew Mills
1 month ago

Regarding “mandatory” vaccination, even if an institution institutes such a policy, take care to evaluate its implementation. At Notre Dame, the administration says that vaccination for faculty and staff who do not have a medical or religious exemption is “required.”

What this means [“mandatory” / “required”], the administration has now “clarified,” is that those not being vaccinated “might” have this fact considered as one part of their 2022 annual salary review. That’s it.

The University public relations campaign stresses safety and health reasons for the vaccine requirement on campus. I doubt that currently unvaccinated colleagues will comply with the “mandate” with only this potential negative consequence on the line.Report

Jeremy Fischer
Reply to  Fritz Warfield
1 month ago

Yes. Likewise, some universities’ “mandatory” vaccination policies for undergraduates require only that students attest to having received the vaccine. No documentation need be shown.Report

Nicolas Delon
1 month ago

Do you have a sense of the proportions of vaccinated students and vaccinated staff and faculty at your institution? I understand this must be hard to get by, given that your University is not monitoring vaccination status. Still, I don’t think can that easily infer the immunization rates of the university’s population from the local community’s rates.Report

Jeremy Fischer
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 month ago

Great question, Nicholas. And I agree with you about the difficulty of inferring university population vaccination rates from local community rates.

My university has not, to my knowledge, shared this information. It’s also unclear whether they are gathering it, either among students or faculty/staff members. Furthermore, to date, the university has provided no incentives either to get the vaccine or to report one’s vaccination status. (To their great credit, however, the university did establish a vaccination site on campus in March, and I believe it continues to operate.)

I have little idea of the university community’s vaccinate rate. I’ll note, for what it’s worth, that only 25.7% of 18-29 year old Alabamians have received their first dose. (Of our undergraduates, 80% are from Alabama.) By contrast, the rates for that age group is slightly above 50% across the U.S. and about 65% in Massachusetts. That doesn’t prove anything, but my sense is that it doesn’t bode well.

Perhaps gathering and disseminating that information would be a worthy goal of advocacy efforts at institutions like mine.Report

Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Jeremy Fischer
1 month ago

Thanks, that’s helpful. I was going to say that, regardless of the absence of a mandate (or even strong incentives), if you knew that enough of the university’s population was vaccinated, the worry could be diffused, but it sounds like you know it’s probably not the case.Report

Jeremy Fischer
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
1 month ago

I should have said ‘Nicolas.’ I’m very sorry!Report

Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Jeremy Fischer
1 month ago

ha, no worries!Report

Jon Light
1 month ago

This is a great post, and distills some important questions. What I worry, though, is that we’ve gone from “vaccine promotion” to “vaccine bullying”. Under “vaccine bullying”, the basic narrative is that if you’re not vaccinated, you’re a public health risk–and the vaccine bullies really don’t have much bandwidth to try to understand the reasons for non-vaccination. (I don’t like “vaccine hesitancy”, because a lot of non-vaccinated people aren’t hesitant about anything at all. They’re unequivocally not getting vaccinated.).

Suffice it to say that medical/religious/philosophical objections form a pretty low bar that’s easy to meet, at least under the relevant jurisprudence (i.e., it’s not courts’ jobs to figure out to evaluate honestly-held beliefs). And so, under any plausible interpretation of what those things mean, there are going to be a *lot* of qualified exemptions. It’s not even clear that “I don’t want to” won’t ultimately be enough to get an exemption, in court. We’ll figure that out this fall when the lawsuits start.

So I think the ballgame now should be to turn the corner on trying to convince unwilling people to get vaccinated, realize that’s sort of part of political liberalism (i.e., people get to choose), and then switch to mitigation strategies. Throw college courses back online, for example. At least that move is “equalizing” and doesn’t create some two-tiered society fraught with tension. Obviously that isn’t great, either, but I think we’ve really got to wrap our heads around the fact that we’re going to land short of herd immunity (because the vaccination rates aren’t high enough), and that might just be “fine” in the sense that it’s too compromising of other important political and social values to push beyond.Report

Michael Kremer
Reply to  Jon Light
1 month ago

There is also the fact that, at least in the US, many people have not been vaccinated because they can’t get time off work for the shot, or for recovering from side effects of the shot.Report

Jeremy Fischer
Reply to  Michael Kremer
1 month ago

Yes indeed. A recent survey suggests that 3% of the unvaccinated say they “can’t get time off from work,” while 4% say they lack “easy access to vaccination.”Report

Moti Gorin
Reply to  Jon Light
1 month ago

Going online is a good option but universities don’t want to do it for obvious (financial) reasons.

As for mitigation strategies, why would liberalism countenance these if it doesn’t countenance vaccine mandates? “I don’t want to get tested.” “I don’t want to quarantine.” “I don’t want to answer questions of contact tracers.” “I no longer want to get any of the other vaccines that have always been mandated.” And so on.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Moti Gorin
benjamin s. yost
Reply to  Jon Light
1 month ago

It’s vaccine bullying to say that nonvaccinated people are a public health risk?Report

Jon Light
Reply to  benjamin s. yost
1 month ago

I’d think so, because categorizing all non-vaccinated people as public health risks without understanding the reasons they may have for not getting vaccinated creates a pernicious narrative.

Is a farmer who lives in the middle of nowhere a public health risk for not getting vaccinated? Is Cole Beasley, who’s otherwise willing to wear a mask and comply with all the NFL’s COVID protocols? So in other words, it’s empirically false that all non-vaccinated people are public health risks, and creating a conversation that runs that way isn’t fair to people who might have good reasons for not getting vaccinated.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Jon Light
A-Prof
A-Prof
Reply to  Jon Light
1 month ago

Everybody is so all in on fairness now more than I have ever seen. What happen to God’s will?Report

SCM
SCM
Reply to  Jon Light
1 month ago

The reasons why someone doesn’t get vaccinated have no bearing whatsoever on whether they pose a public health risk. The latter depends on the probability of their getting infected and in turn infecting others, but this highly infectious virus is not exactly polite enough to take into consideration a person’s reasons for not getting vaccinated. Even those relatively few people who should not get vaccinated for excellent medical reasons still pose a public health risk.

Wearing a mask in public is good but no substitute for vaccination. Social distancing is good but no substitute for vaccination. And even vaccination is not by itself sufficient to eliminate the public health risk one poses. Those who willfully refuse to get vaccinated will end up causing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths in the months ahead, and not only of those like themselves. There’s no value at all in pretending they have some liberal entitlement to do this, any more than pretending they have a liberal entitlement to smoke in cinemas, drink gin in cars, store toxic chemicals in their driveways, or breed free range rats in their gardens.

If you like, unvaccinated hermits living on mountain tops may not pose any public health risk. Great! Let’s not bully them.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by SCM
benjamin s. yost
Reply to  Jon Light
1 month ago

I took the claim to be a general one, not a universal one. As a general claim, it’s clearly true. If you think the CDC really needs to carve out exceptions in its messaging for isolated farmers and hermits and Cole Beasly to avoid bullying, ok. Also, as SCM said, your reasons for acting/not acting have no bearing on whether you’re a public health risk. They might bear on normative assessments of your acting/not acting but not descriptive assessments of the risk you pose.Report

CarlD
1 month ago

I wonder if the unexamined baseline here is zero risk. The vaccine is available and as effective as vaccines can be. Vaccine + mask is as close to 100% effective as can be practically expected against both contagion and transmission. This means anyone who so chooses can now personally arrange their risk exposure to near zero without any need to rearrange other persons or settings.

The goal of the public health emergency was to flatten the curve and make reasonable protection available. That goal has been achieved. Last year, it was unreasonable to compare COVID-19 to the flu. This year, it is becoming both reasonable and accurate. Public life carries many risks we gladly accept, and isolation is not itself without risk.

I do think our enhanced awareness of the higher risk faced by some of us, in many dimensions, is a wonderful advance that should be abundantly accommodated. But I don’t think our general biopolitics are enhanced by subjecting us all to a permanent state of emergency.Report

Moti Gorin
Reply to  CarlD
1 month ago

I wonder who has suggested we accept a “permanent state of emergency”?

The virus will continue to evolve among the walking, talking incubators who cannot or will not get vaccinated. Then, we will be back at square one, where current vaccine won’t be sufficient. Already we know that viral load in those infected with delta is as high in those who are vaccinated as in those who are not.

Plenty of room for reasonable disagreement on reasonable risk, liberty vs. safety, etc., but just look at the undervaccinated regions of the US and their infection and hospitalization numbers. That could end up more widespread if we aren’t careful.Report

Jeremy Fischer
Reply to  CarlD
1 month ago

Thanks for your post, CarlD.

I actually agree that (1) a permanent state of emergency must be guarded against, (2) we do and should accept some non-zero degree of baseline risk, and (3) one main and proper goal of COVID public health policy has been to ‘flatten the curve.’

I focus my post on ‘unprotected’ schools for just those reasons. Most protected schools, in my view, need not declare any state of emergency, even though they introduce non-trivial COVID-related public and private health risks. And we should be quite concerned about flattening the curve in low-vaccination regions (though perhaps not elsewhere).

If we disagree about something, it might be your implication (I think?) that the goal of flattening the curve “has been achieved.” The alarming hospitalization rates graph published in the NYT suggests to me that Nevada, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi may now want to take new measures to flatten the curve. Hospital occupancy rates in some regions are in dangerous territory. Others can speak to this better than me, but my sense is that hospital staff in many regions are exhausted–I think they might appreciate a return to ‘flatten the curve’ policies.

Regarding the efficacy of vaccines-plus-masks against “contagion and transmission,” I agree that these measures are highly effective. But this week’s newsworthy Israeli studies should get us to reassess matters somewhat. It appears, according to that study, that the Pfizer shot is now only about 40% effective against Delta infections (see the table on p. 7). Moreover, it appears that vaccine effectiveness decreases dramatically over time–January vaccinations had only 16%(!) effectiveness against infections, February vaccinations had 44% effectiveness, and so forth (see the chart on p. 8). Presumably this report is driving some interest in booster shots.

As far as I can see, then, those of us at ‘less protected institutions’ remain in dangerous territory and face tough ethical questions.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Jeremy Fischer
skeptic
1 month ago

I don’t see anything other than faculty organizing as a way to address concerns. At my University we are unionized and if I’m forced into in-person classes I will be seeking recourse there. I’m immunocompromised so there might be an avenue through ADA. FWIW, I’m a TT philosophy prof. at a state school in a red state. Fully vaxxed.

I’m pessimistic. Academics tend to be timid, milquetoast reluctant little pukes, so I don’t see any worthwhile organizing happening any time soon.Report

John
Reply to  skeptic
1 month ago

Not going to lie–your frank assessment of so many academics’ limited moral courage is refreshing. Too many (but by no means all) issues in academia turn on academics who are actually invertebrates.

Issues surrounding vaccination would be more easily handled if there were a chance of collective action. But there isn’t, and this is not only because of academics’ limited moral courage, but also because of their spurious conception of themselves as ‘intellectual entrepreneurs’ rather than as workers who get a paystub.Report