Many higher education institutions are preparing for or are underway with plans to vaccinate their students before the spring term ends, but their approaches differ widely.
Some states have opened vaccine eligibility to anyone ages 16 or over, and colleges in those regions are encouraging students to get their shots right away. Some institutions in regions with limited vaccine eligibility are connecting students to leftover doses.
Many colleges are planning to return to in-person instruction for the fall, but that depends largely on how many students are vaccinated and whether coronavirus case numbers improve.
Arizona is one of several states that recently opened vaccine eligibility to all adults. The University of Arizona, which serves as a state-run distribution center for the shots, is aiming to get its entire student body vaccinated by the end of the spring term, The Washington Post reported.
The flagship university expects to distribute 4,000 vaccines each day now that students are eligible, a spokesperson told the publication. Vaccinated students will no longer be subject to mandatory coronavirus testing, but they will have to continue to wear masks and follow other safety protocols on campus.
Other schools are also waiving certain safety measures for inoculated students. Dickinson State University, in North Dakota, will exempt students from the campus mask mandate if they wear a pin or bracelet signifying they've been fully vaccinated, NBC News reported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people who've been vaccinated to continue wearing masks and taking other precautions.
It is still unclear whether people who have been vaccinated can transmit the virus to others, but a new study across 20-plus campuses involving more than 12,000 college students who received the Moderna shot is expected to shed light on the issue, The New York Times reported.
Even if a large share of students and employees are vaccinated, colleges will have to consider the inoculation levels of their surrounding communities, said Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association's COVID-19 Task Force. If there is low vaccine coverage, colleges will still need to have the campus wear masks, social distance and practice good hand hygiene, Barkin said.
The University of Michigan is following that guidance. In a FAQ to students and employees about the vaccine, it notes they will still be required to wear masks and follow other safety protocols until more is learned about the level of protection the shots provide "under real-life conditions."
Colleges should incentivize students to get their doses by communicating to them that a return to in-person classes relies on the campus population being vaccinated. "Being able to go to campus, live on campus and have campus activities, … those are all major incentives that I think students will grab onto," Barkin said.
Some schools in states with limited eligibility are helping connect students to leftover vaccines. Beloit College, in Wisconsin, directed interested students to join a waitlist for "no waste" vaccines — those that must be quickly used before they expire — offered by a nearby health system.