Guided by evidence, universities should lead the way on pandemic reopenings | Simon F. Haeder

(Old Main at Penn State University. Image via Flickr Commons)

By Simon F. Haeder

The coronavirus has wreaked havoc around the globe for more than a year now. Hailing from its poor policy response and disregard from well-founded public health measures by a significant minority of the population, the United States has fared particularly poorly.

Yet, over the last few months, we have experienced a tremendous turnaround under both the Trump and Biden administrations, with millions of shots being put into Americans’ arms weekly.

We are not out of the woods yet, and things might turn out quite poorly if we open things up too soon and too widely. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, finally.

There is no doubt that most parts of society and have faced tremendous challenges over the past year. These inequities should be acknowledged, and we must do some significant soul searching on how to rectify them in the future.

Beyond these inequities, colleges and universities, like my own employer, Penn State, and their students and staff have experienced financial and socio-emotional hardships that threaten a substantial part of American higher education.

Given these realities it is unsurprising that colleges and universities appear to favor opening up fully after the summer break. Financially, there seems to be little choice. Despite a number of hurdles, I think that’s the correct decision.

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Opening up, the coming fall semester will pose substantial challenges for institutions of higher learning across the country. Even in times not subject to a pandemic, university life brings tremendous health challenges because thousands of students and staff congregate in high density environments on and off campus. Students want a social life, even more so after being penned up for a year and a half. Learning involves close contact and working in teams.

Most of us spend countless hours in close contact with others in generally poorly ventilated areas. We also know that college students generally have particularly low vaccination rates, as do those living in rural areas. The list goes on.

At the same time, opening up in the fall brings with it incredible opportunities for universities to reclaim their leadership roles in a society where distrust of elites and science has reached questionable proportions.

It is time for universities to step up and implement evidence-based policies to keep doors open and students and staff safe. In doing so, we can do more than simply keep staff and students safe while educating the next generation of leaders in our classroom.

Opening up is also a precious opportunity to make universities matter beyond the confines of the proverbial ivory towers by showing our communities how we can return to a more normal life, safely.

Lots of the measures colleges and universities should take are rather obvious from an evidence-based perspective.

Most importantly, we need to invest tremendous resources into educating our students and staff.  We should not just expect them to get vaccinated because we tell them to do so. We have buildings full of people with tremendous knowledge about the subject and how to communicate.

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Time to use them. And given what we know about vaccine hesitancy, we need to double down on groups known to have low vaccination rates. And we need to not do so in a condescending way. Campus leadership, official and unofficial (think social media influencer) ought to take the lead.

We should also make it easy, really easy, for students and staff to get vaccinated. Supplies won’t be an issue come this summer.

But vaccination clinics should be all over campus: dorms, dining halls, sororities and fraternities. There have to be close to zero opportunity costs for many students to get vaccinated. The slightest administrative burden will be one obstacle to many.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine should be the preferred vaccine here because it only requires one shot, eliminating the need to convince students to show up another time for their second shot while they are catching up with classes and socializing.

And we should provide incentives for students, of course. Raffle off football tickets or food. Whatever it takes. Behavioral economics has lots of offer on how to get things right.

There should also be plenty of testing, both done truly at random as well as pooled testing to get an appropriate picture of potential COVID-19 rates on campus. And yes, we should be monitoring the sewage for COVID outbreaks. And of course, there should be plenty of hand sanitizer and masks on campus. We should keep some safe distance between us.

But realistically, we know that once doors close and night falls, masks will come off and distances will shrink. And we also know that information and incentives will only get us so far.

Ultimately, we know there is only one way to get to near universal vaccinates rates: mandates. And that is why colleges and universities should not shy away from imposing vaccination requirements on students and staff. You want to be on campus, you should need to be vaccinated unless you have a medical reason not to do so. Efficacy and safety of vaccinates are well established at this point.

Our universities and communities cannot endure much more of this pandemic. And as my own recent work shows, America has long used these mandates to keep schools and communities save, and there is only a very small number of Americans who outrightly oppose them.

Perhaps most importantly, we know that they are tremendously effective in achieving near universal vaccination rates. And that’s what matters the most.

Of course, there will be push back on some of these measures from all sides. Yet in times like these, it is time for us, universities and scholars, to step up and speak truth to power. And we will be better for it as a nation.

Opinion contributor Simon F. Haeder is an assistant public policy professor at Penn State University. His work appears regularly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @SimonFHaeder.