Colleges in Undervaccinated Areas Sweat a Return to Campus

A summer surge in Covid-19 cases is complicating return-to-campus plans for U.S. colleges, particularly for schools in undervaccinated areas or where state laws bar them from implementing key mitigation measures.

All schools face a delicate task in updating pandemic-related protocols amid the spread of the delta variant. The young people they serve have been relatively slow to take up vaccines, with only 45% of 18-to-24 year-olds fully vaccinated, compared to 59% of all eligible Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of those students will be looking to let loose in social settings after a year of Zoom school.

But certain colleges have it especially hard. At Clemson University in South Carolina, state rules prohibit it from requiring masks or vaccines, and like many public schools across the South, it is located in an area where vaccination rates are low overall. Still, it plans to operate its facilities at full capacity, offering guidance for students that “strongly encourages” vaccination and says masks are “strongly recommended'' in university buildings. Physical distancing guidelines will not be in place.

That has Katelynn Bortz, 20, worried about her school’s football games, student events and large lecture halls. Even the small political science and women's leadership seminars she’s taking this fall are newfound sources of anxiety.

"If I'm sitting in a room with 20 people, I don't know, realistically, how many are vaccinated,” said Bortz, a Clemson junior. "I'd feel a lot safer if I did."

Hundreds of public colleges have their hands tied by similar new laws that prevent them from enacting mask mandates or vaccine requirements. When calling for lawmakers to reconsider such bans, the American College Heath Association and almost 30 higher education associations called the laws a “recipe for disaster.”

Even when campuses were more sparsely attended last year, “We saw outbreaks,” said Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the health group's Covid-19 task force. “And now we’re getting everyone back at full tilt. What do they expect? It's very concerning.”