The University of Virginia requires its students in Charlottesville to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, and they are complying in overwhelming numbers: More than 90 percent are now inoculated ahead of the fall term.
These two flagship public universities illustrate a wide gulf in approaches to the pandemic as higher education approaches another gut-check moment. Both want a normal school year despite the summer surge of the dangerous delta variant that is leading campuses across the country to ask students once again to wear masks indoors.
One is avoiding vaccination metrics and mandates. The other is keeping close tabs on vaccinations.
On July 29, U-Va. marked 22,178 students as fully vaccinated out of 24,617 eligible to register for courses on the main campus. That yielded a student vaccination rate of 90 percent. By Monday, the rate had reached 91 percent. A few hundred students had obtained waivers for medical or religious reasons. Others had trouble accessing vaccines or had not yet submitted documents. Among faculty and staff, 91 percent were fully or partially vaccinated.
The university views this data as essential to navigate the pandemic. To U-Va., monitoring vaccinations for the coming school year is just as important as all the viral testing in the past year that helped protect the campus from deadly outbreaks.
“My view is, you need to know what you’re dealing with,” said U-Va. President James E. Ryan. Without knowing vaccination levels, he said, “you’re flying a little blind.” To have almost everyone on campus immunized, Ryan said, “is just critical to being able to have full classrooms … and full dorms and full dining halls.”
A Washington Post survey of a number of prominent universities found several that publicize vaccination rates, even among schools that are not mandating shots. The University of Kentucky, which doesn’t mandate vaccines, reported that 69 percent of its students, faculty and staff had been immunized as of July 30 or were in the process of doing so.
“It is a tremendous effort,” President Eli Capilouto wrote to the Kentucky community. “But our goal is to move that number to at least 80 percent early in the new school year.”
At Ohio State University, another school that encourages but doesn’t mandate vaccines, the vaccination rate for students, faculty and staff stood at more than 73 percent as of Monday. President Kristina M. Johnson, using the lure of letter grades, is exhorting the campus to go further. “We really want them to get an A, so we want to be above 90 percent if we can,” Johnson told the Columbus, Ohio, television station WSYX.
Health experts and education leaders lament that political pressures often limit how colleges respond to the pandemic. Many aren’t allowed to require coronavirus vaccines or surveillance testing for the virus, and they face major hurdles in gathering student vaccination records.
In June, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) issued an executive order barring public colleges from mandating students to get vaccinated against the virus or to submit vaccination documents. Ducey has also opposed certain kinds of viral-testing and mask mandates. “We need to make our public universities available for students to return to learning,” Ducey said.
Education groups say political leaders shouldn’t get in the way of public health.
“State actions that prevent the use of established and effective public health tools at the same time as covid-19 cases increase is a recipe for disaster,” the American College Health Association said this week in a joint statement with the American Council on Education. The organizations said the restrictions “threaten the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and neighboring communities.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education lists more than 640 schools that have coronavirus vaccine mandates. Four historically Black medical schools — Morehouse School of Medicine, Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, Meharry Medical College and the Howard University medical school — announced Wednesday they are requiring the shots.
“As the covid-19 pandemic continues to present a significant threat to Black communities, we cannot afford to undermine — in any way — the success of the next generation of Black doctors," leaders of the four schools wrote.
As of Sunday, Howard also has a vaccine mandate for all students on its D.C. campus. The university, like others, provides religious and medical exemptions. There was no data immediately available on how many students have verified coronavirus vaccinations so far. But the campus is starting to come to life as students arrive this week. "Every student moving into the dorms is vaccinated,” university spokesman Frank Tramble said.
But many schools nationwide, including dozens of historically Black colleges concentrated in southern states, are not requiring vaccinations.
Several students sued Indiana University in June seeking to block its vaccine mandate. They alleged that the mandate infringed on their bodily autonomy and medical privacy and that it was wrong to force people to get shots administered under emergency use authorization.
“The threat of virtual expulsion from school for students who refuse to take the vaccine and who do not qualify for an exemption is not an attempt to garner consent—it is coercion," the students alleged in their suit. A federal judge and an appellate court have upheld the university’s position.
Other complaints are arising. George Mason University law professor Todd Zywicki has sued the Northern Virginia school to challenge its vaccine mandate. He contends he does not need immunization because he has already had, and recovered from, covid-19.
These episodes, and student protests in some places, underscore the potential for emergence of vaccine resistance movements on campuses.
At some universities there are growing worries about the lack of a mandate. Faculty leaders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill passed a resolution Wednesday urging the state university system to grant the school’s chancellor and provost authority to mandate proof of vaccination.
In a memo Thursday to UNC System schools, UNC System President Peter Hans said the schools should tell students, faculty and staff to “get vaccinated or get tested regularly.”
“With classes starting soon, there are a lot of concerns among the faculty,” said Berl Oakley, a professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Kansas who leads a chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “I think we were hoping we would be in a situation where it would be near-normal. But it’s not going to be near-normal.”
Oakley added: “We don’t have any real numbers on what fraction of our students will be vaccinated.”
The university’s media relations unit did not respond to emails seeking student vaccination rates. The school is not requiring shots.
Sophie Kunin, 22, a senior at Kansas active in student government, launched an online petition for tighter public health measures. It calls for students and faculty to show proof of vaccination or be forced to wear a mask.
“There’s been a lot of pushback” to the petition, Kunin said, “with students who just want life to go back to normal.” She thinks that’s unrealistic: “The thing is about that, if we go back to normal for even just a few weeks, we’re going to shut down so quickly, and who knows if school will even reopen for the rest of the year.”
The Post sent emails to dozens of universities in the D.C. area and elsewhere seeking student vaccination rates and mask policies. Many that had eased mask requirements are now pivoting to require them indoors, regardless of vaccination status, in response to recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of those schools is George Washington University.
“It’s a little bit frustrating that every time you think you’re ready to come out of the woods, you’re not coming out of the woods,” GWU President Thomas LeBlanc said. The university requires coronavirus vaccinations. The student vaccination rate was 88 percent as of Tuesday, and climbing. “We’re doing much better than the population at large,” he said.
Trinity Washington University, a women’s college in D.C., said 53 percent of roughly 840 undergraduates in its traditional face-to-face programs had verified vaccination as of Wednesday. The school is mandating vaccination, but like many colleges large and small, public and private, it expects there will be stragglers. “Students just don’t do what they’re supposed to do until the last minute,” said President Patricia McGuire. She said she is confident the numbers are heading “in the right direction.”
The University of Maryland at College Park counted 89 percent of students fully vaccinated, in compliance with its mandate, as of Tuesday. “I think most of our students are going to get there. And I think these deadlines are forcing them to get there,” President Darryll J. Pines said. He said there has been little resistance. “I probably can count the number of emails or letters or calls that I received on my two hands.”
Here is a table of selected schools that responded to The Post on vaccination rates. Some publish the information via online “dashboards.” Schools emphasized data is evolving daily. Some rates represent full vaccination, others full and partial.
Percent of students vaccinated
College of William & Mary
George Mason U.
George Washington U.
Louisiana State U.
U. at Buffalo
U. of California at Berkeley
U. of Maryland
U. of Michigan
U. of Virginia
U. of Wisconsin at Madison
Virginia Commonwealth U.
Many schools declined to provide vaccination rates or said they didn’t have the data. Some said their figures were too incomplete.
Louisiana State University disclosed that 34 percent of its students, as of Aug. 2, reported themselves as vaccinated. But the flagship of a neighboring state had no information. “Unfortunately we don’t have statistics,” wrote University of Arkansas spokesman John Thomas.
The University of New Mexico grew so concerned about the slow pace of vaccinations that it announced Monday it will require the shots. Previously it had only recommended them. As of Tuesday, the university reported that 11,131 students and employees had been fully vaccinated in a community of more than 30,000. There were no separate figures immediately available on the student vaccination rate.
“Unfortunately, as infections have increased around the state and the nation, our vaccination rate has not kept pace in a manner sufficient to ensure we can protect our community,” President Garnett S. Stokes wrote. Incentives for vaccination, Stokes wrote, “will not be enough.”
Greg Romero, 21, a senior and president of the student government, was vaccinated in March. He views vaccination as key to bringing back pep rallies, concerts, in-person classes and all the rest of campus life. “That’s what’s at stake here if we don’t get the numbers where we want them to be,” Romero said.
He studies theater and business administration, and his last school year was mostly online. Even the acting classes. “Extremely tough,” he recalled.
Romero doesn’t want to repeat that experience.
At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which is encouraging the shots, 68 percent of students had coronavirus vaccination records on file as of Thursday. Adrian Lampron, 21, a senior and chair of the student government, had been very confident until recently that the university’s plan would work well. Now, Lampron is getting nervous, even if other students are not.
“A lot of people are still in the head space of being done with covid, it’s on the way out, they’re safe, they can do whatever they want because they’re vaccinated,“ Lampron said. “I don’t know if anybody knows enough to know if that’s going to be true this fall.”
For many schools, vaccine policy cuts straight to the heart of their relationship with students and families. The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, a liberal arts school in the rural southwest corner of the state, has staked out a position distinct from the flagship in Charlottesville that oversees it. U-Va. at Wise is encouraging vaccines for its 1,100 in-person undergraduates. As of Tuesday, about 52 percent had gotten the shots.
“We have been committed to bringing our students in to have dialogue, understand their concerns, and educate them,” the school’s chancellor, Donna Price Henry, said in a statement.
Joshua McCray, 21, a senior at the college and student government leader, got vaccinated as soon as possible, the day before his birthday in March. He talks up the vaccine every chance he gets and works part time for a local health agency with mobile vaccination units. One of McCray’s uncles died of covid, and he is planning to go to medical school. “Some students are just more motivated than others,” McCray said.
Mandates could backfire in southwest Virginia, he said, putting off potential students otherwise drawn to the school. “It’s really a full circle big decision for a lot of people,” McCray said. He tells them the vaccine is the best tool to fight the pandemic. “We really have pushed that ‘Let’s get back to normal.' "
Lauren Lumpkin contributed to this report.
The pandemic’s impact on education
The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5. To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools. American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure.
Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules.
DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.