Arizona State University announced its COVID-19 mitigation plans for a fall semester in person just two weeks ago. According to the plans, students would not have to be vaccinated against COVID-19. But those who chose not to submit proof of vaccination to ASU would be required to participate in COVID tests twice a week, wear face covers in indoor and outdoor spaces on campus, and undergo a checkup. daily health. Fully vaccinated students would be able to bypass these additional requirements.
The political reaction was immediate and fierce – ASU was quickly forced by the governor to back down.
“This is bad policy, with no basis for public health,” Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, wrote on Twitter the day ASU announced its policy.
He issued an executive order the next day declaring that public universities and community colleges in Arizona cannot impose COVID-19 vaccines or require unvaccinated people to undergo COVID tests or wear face masks as a condition of class attendance or participation in learning.
The order says that a public college can only require COVID-19 testing if there is “a significant outbreak of COVID-19 in shared student accommodation that poses a risk to students or staff.”
About 15 states have various laws or decrees limiting the ability of government entities – and in some cases private colleges as well – to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination. But the Arizona executive order goes further by also banning mandatory testing and face mask requirements for unvaccinated students.
The language that would codify Ducey’s decree into law is included in the House and Senate versions of a higher education budget bill and is expected to be widely approved by the Republican-controlled legislature later in the day.
“I think the policy is a disgrace,” said Elizabeth Jacobs, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics and nutritional sciences at the University of Arizona. “It ties our hands completely and leaves us no opportunity to implement reasonable and sensible public health strategies in universities. “
While Jacobs said she would personally prefer a vaccine requirement, she described the plans proposed by ASU as “a brilliant policy” which respected the fact that some students prefer not to be vaccinated and “gave everyone the choice of how they want to protect the community. “
She said she would not teach in person until a policy like the one proposed by ASU is in place, requiring either vaccination or a combination of testing and masking for unvaccinated people.
“The things I think about are standing in the classroom and people are not masked; I don’t know if they are vaccinated or not, ”she said. “We don’t have a lot of ventilation in our classrooms. There are a number of faculty and students I’ve heard of who are taking immunosuppressive drugs and are deeply concerned about entering a workplace without COVID mitigation in place. “
ASU said in a statement that it would comply with the decree “and communicate changes to protocols to the academic community.” An ASU spokesperson said the university has yet to release the new protocols.
The ASU statement underscored the university’s adherence to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and said its June 14 guidelines offered students the choice to be vaccinated, while announcing “the continuation of existing health protocols for students who are not yet vaccinated as they are at higher risk of infection and spread of the virus. “
As the much more transmissible Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus spreads, a growing political division emerges between states in terms of tools colleges can use to control the spread of the virus on their campuses.
Nearly 550 colleges, mostly in Democratic-controlled states, are mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for students or employees this fall, according to a list maintained by The Chronicle of Higher Education. While some colleges have said they will wait to implement a requirement until a COVID-19 vaccine receives full approval from the Food and Drug Administration – currently, the three vaccines available in the United States are approved through the FDA’s emergency use authorization process – many colleges have chosen to go ahead and add COVID-19 to the list of vaccines they already need for students.
Public colleges in many Republican-controlled states, by contrast, find themselves forced to demand COVID-19 vaccines not only by local political sentiment, but also by decrees or laws that limit their ability to do so.
While details vary, laws or decrees limiting the ability of certain government entities to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination – so-called vaccine passports – are in place in many Republican-controlled states, including including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
North Dakota law specifically exempts higher education. Some, but not all of the other laws and ordinances, including those in Oklahoma and Utah, explicitly state that they apply to public colleges. The bans in Florida and Texas apply to both public and private colleges. (In Texas, they apply to private colleges that receive any form of state funding.)
Indiana University changed its policy to require students to certify that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 – instead of requiring that they submit proof – after the attorney general of the State issued an advisory finding that the university’s vaccine requirements violated state law prohibiting vaccine passports, according to Indiana Public Media. A group of students are suing IU for this requirement.
“Unfortunately, there are a variety of flavors that are tasted by state policymakers to try and see what will go well with their base,” said Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education. . “As we have seen time and time again in some states, higher education in particular and indeed education in general is not seen as a friendly ally for policymakers, thus pushing back colleges and their decisions. may be a politically expedient approach. “
“The problem is, the pressure from some policymakers to force colleges to make their colleges less secure is extremely disappointing,” McDonough said. “There is no doubt that they are mixing health and politics, but leaving out two crucial ingredients: science and facts.”
McDonough noted that every state in the country and the District of Columbia have vaccination requirements for students.
“We are in this environment in which we have unfortunately politicized the way of dealing with COVID,” he said.
In Arizona, about 50% of adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared to 57% nationally.
Ducey stressed that the COVID-19 vaccination is a personal choice.
“The vaccine is working and we encourage the Arizonans to take it. But it is a choice and we must keep it that way, ”he said in a June 15 press release issued with his decree. “Public education is a public right, and taxpayers pay for it. We need to make our public universities available for students to return to learning. “
Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association and former director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said Ducey used his executive authority to “micromanage” universities and community colleges and that he used his emergency powers to do harm rather than for good. .
“ASU had designed a mitigation plan for this fall that was thoughtful, calibrated and evidence-based,” Humble wrote in a blog post. “The policy recognized the difference in risk between vaccinated and unvaccinated students and managed those risks appropriately by requiring that unvaccinated students undergo periodic testing and wear a mask on campus. “
Tara Sklar, professor of health law and director of the Health Law & Policy Program at the University of Arizona, said state restrictions put higher education institutions in a difficult position.
“I think the universities are in a really difficult situation here with the way to manage life on campus,” she said. “There are only a limited number of tools available to them, and in Arizona they have all been removed. “
Sklar noted that younger students are more likely to have asymptomatic cases of COVID-19.
“So it could spread to the local community in some way,” she said. “We’re not even just talking about campus activities, but surges in cities and counties. “