Higher Ed Institutions Still Undecided About Mask and Social Distancing Requirements for the Fall

As the nation’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues and colleges and universities prepare for in-person instruction in the fall, what remains unclear is how the CDC’s recent guidance for fully vaccinated people will apply.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly announced earlier this month that fully vaccinated people did not need to wear a mask or physically distance – except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws and rules.

Several colleges and universities – in preparation for students to be back on campus in the fall – have announced varying degrees of COVID-19 vaccine requirements for students and/or faculty and staff. Those institutions include: Hampton University, Rutgers University, American University, Georgetown University, Howard University, University of Michigan and University of Southern California.

Still, it’s unclear what schools will mandate in terms of masking and social distancing once students, faculty and staff – a percentage of which will be vaccinated – return.

In the case of Indiana University – and all of its campuses – it is requiring all faculty, staff and students to be fully vaccinated by Aug. 15, with exceptions made for exemptions based on medical and/or religious purposes. Those fully vaccinated won’t have to wear a mask or socially distance.

Jackie SimmonsJackie Simmons

The goal is to “return to as much as normal as possible,” said Jackie Simmons, vice president and general counsel for Indiana University.

“If you’ve been vaccinated, you will not have to wear a mask, just as the CDC guidelines state right now,” said Simmons. “If you are not vaccinated, because you have an exemption – one of the two exemptions for instance – or you’re still in that two-week period of time after you got a vaccine, then you will still have to mask.”

The hope, she adds, “is to do away with social distancing and mask guidelines for the vast majority of our population come the fall semester.”

As for any potential litigation, Simmons said that IU’s guidelines do not conflict with Indiana law.

Chapman University in California, is imposing a similar vaccine requirement, but theirs won’t take effect until FDA approval is given to at least one of the COVID-19 vaccines.

“We’re requiring either a vaccination or a declination,” said Jamie Ceman, vice president of strategic marketing and communications at Chapman “And the declination can be for medical, personal or religious reasons. And if any faculty, staff or student chooses to decline vaccination, we simply require them to get weekly COVID testing.”

Ceman said that when full in-person instruction begins in the fall, the university will require anyone who is not vaccinated to get two weekly COVID tests, “so that we can do what we can to slow the spread.”

The university has not yet decided its policy on masks for the fall.

University of Washington has announced a vaccine requirement for students and is still deciding whether to impose a similar one for faculty and staff, said Dr. Geoff Gottlieb, infectious disease physician at University of Washington School of Medicine, chair of UW’s Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases and medical director for the UW campus environmental health and safety group.

The university has not yet decided whether UW will have a mask requirement in the fall.

Dr. Geoffrey GottliebDr. Geoffrey Gottlieb

“The governor’s higher ed proclamation, which sort of provides legal structure for all the things we’re doing on campus, including masking and social distancing,” he said. “We expect to hear from our state government about this and how it’ll apply to our campus for the fall.”

UW expects to offer in-person instruction in the fall.

“And that will by necessity, require most social distancing requirements to be relaxed by the state,” Gottlieb said. “It’s tough to fill our classes up and have a full complement of students on campus without the distancing requirements going away.”

But the permanent nature of any decision, he said, will rest with whether the pandemic gets under controlled.

“I think that’s still an open question, whether we’ll have a mask mandate in the fall and that depends a lot on case counts, what the county directives are from our public health officer and what the state and governor’s office is requiring of universities and other higher ed institutions,” he added.

Arrman Kyaw can be reached at akyaw@diverseeducation.com