As a mask mandate is reinstituted across St. Louis and St. Louis County, local colleges and universities are nearing opening for the fall semester. They are taking drastically different paths when it comes to COVID mitigation for students and faculty.
Missouri has become a national hotspot for COVID, averaging around 2,400 cases per day after dropping to less than 500 two months ago. The state has one of the lowest fully vaccinated populations in the U.S. at just over 40% as of late July.
Some local universities are joining the 400-plus higher education institutions nationwide which are requiring the vaccine.
Washington University announced that it would be mandating vaccination for all students on June 7. On July 6, St. Louis University did so as well. Webster University followed suit on July 22. Each school’s policies include an option to apply for a vaccine exemption for health or religious reasons.
“Having a fully-vaccinated community means all of us — people who are fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated or who are granted a University-approved exemption from vaccination — can work, study, teach, research, minister, dine and socialize without face masks and social distancing,” wrote Professor Terri Rebmann of SLU’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics in a letter to the school community.
“It will be joyous for us to be in community once again.”
In Webster’s announcement, President Julian Z. Schuster said that the decision was made due to the advance of the Delta variant of the virus.
“Medical agencies report that those who are unvaccinated make up nearly all cases of those who become critically ill from these mutations,” he wrote. “Given that environment, Webster University will now require that all students, faculty and staff begin the vaccination process by the start of the fall semester.”
On top of requiring vaccinations, Washington University is piloting a smartphone-based COVID exposure tracking system.
“It’s a way of getting alerts of possible exposures to people very quickly so they can take appropriate action,” said Philip R.O. Payne, PhD, director of the university’s Institute for Informatics and associate dean for health information and data science.
“Quick notification can have a huge impact on the dynamics of a pandemic, especially as we continue to re-open our university and need to keep tabs on new variants and their impact on our campus community.”
Other local institutions, though, are opting for a strategy based more on masking and distancing than on mandatory vaccination.
Lindenwood University “reviewed many options and encourages employees and students to get vaccinated,” according to Julee Mitsler, Lindenwood’s director of communications. They hosted a vaccine clinic in the spring, and intend to host another in the fall.
“Ultimately, our decision was to empower our campus community members to make their own decisions when it came to the vaccine,” Mitsler said.
Fontbonne University, too, “strongly encourages” its students and faculty members to get vaccinated but does not mandate it. In addition, as of now, they have not made a decision regarding whether or not masks will be required inside campus buildings.
Neither Lindenwood nor Fontbonne was able to provide data on the percentage of their students or faculty who have been vaccinated.
At the University of Missouri St. Louis, the situation is more complicated, as it is a public institution. In 15 states, bills have been passed barring COVID-19 proof of vaccination.
Indiana's attorney general says state universities may require COVID-19 vaccines, but can't force students to provide proof.
While Missouri has not passed a similar bill, no public university in the state has yet required COVID vaccination in order to return to campus.
Harris-Stowe State University, like UMSL, will not be mandating vaccines.
“We are not able to do that, as a state school,” said Kristen Harris, assistant director of communications and marketing for the university.
Harris-Stowe will also continue to offer online classes and hybrid schedules, and mandate that students wear masks in campus buildings.
As of last week, Harris said, students in classrooms will only be required to social distance by 3 feet rather than six, so that more students can be offered in-person instruction in the fall.
“But anywhere else, students are still expected to maintain 6 feet social distancing,” Harris said.
In the case of UMSL, a requirement on face coverings has been reinstituted as of July 26 “when entering or occupying a physical building or facility owned, operated or managed by the university regardless of vaccination status,” according to the University’s website.
In addition, students living on-campus at the university now have the option to request a vaccinated roommate over an unvaccinated one.
While nearly all colleges in the United States hold it as standard practice to require a list of vaccinations for all students, the COVID-19 vaccine has faced pushback when schools try to add it to that list.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson last week spoke out against mask mandates, and on June 15 he signed an order prohibiting the verification of vaccine status via “vaccine passports” by localities.