Some professors in Georgia refuse to teach under lax Covid-19 rules. Students and faculty at Mississippi’s two largest universities have called for tougher measures from the state. From petitions in Utah to “die-in” protests in Iowa, thousands are pushing for stricter rules in their institutions.
“Nobody else has to die,” said Neo Koite, who organized the protest after Ahuero’s death and met with campus administrators about Covid-19 security measures, in an interview.
Colleges in states like California, Maryland, and Virginia have mandated the vaccine and sometimes threaten to take the unvaccinated off Internet access or the dormitory – and occasionally take them off their roles altogether. But other states, like Texas, Georgia, and Tennessee have banned or discouraged vaccination regulations or wearing universal masks both on and off campus. The universities’ requests for more protection escalated as the semester progressed, forcing educators and students to step up their calls for action.
In September, eight sections of the American Association of University Professors urged Congress to intervene, saying they were not attractive to state and university leaders. Several representatives have agreed to hold meetings and MP Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.) sent a letter to the Ministry of Education with the question of whether federal grant funds can be used to obtain mandates at universities.
“We’re currently at a level of frustration I’ve never seen before,” AAUP President Irene Mulvey said in an interview. “Everyone is fighting the same battle and these are common sense rules to end the pandemic and keep people safe.”
Mulvey said she couldn’t envision another unified uprising by professors across the country since McCarthyism threatened academic freedom in the 1950s.
“The way these governors and lawmakers are banning universities from doing the things we know will end the pandemic … It’s like the building is on fire and they’re making rules that say that you are not allowed to use the fire extinguisher, ”she said in an interview.
The AAUP’s efforts may be strongest in Georgia, where the state chapter led a week-long protest in 19 locations. Months of worry from faculty, staff and students have resulted in too little change on campus, and now there are at least 50 professors in the country say they will defy the ban on masks by requiring students to wear face covering in class.
“We’re just trying to find ways to scream to the wind right now,” said Matthew Boedy, president of the Georgia AAUP conference and professor at the University of North Georgia.
“The only leverage we had was public attention and mass movement.”
Some professors talked about protecting their children or other more vulnerable family members when asking students to wear masks in class, Boedy said. At least four University of Georgia faculty members have quit or retired because of lax guidelines on wearing masks – one longtime professor retiring middle class when a student refused to properly wear a mask.
“The University of Georgia is doing everything in its power to protect the health, safety and well-being of our community,” a university spokesperson said in a statement, explaining that universities are not empowered to mandate Georgia without the consent of the university system.
Between conflicting guidelines from state lawmakers, governors, state higher education bodies, and federal health authorities, universities are struggling to establish health policies. Some delayed announcing the Covid-19 rules in hopes that a clearer legal precedent will be set.
“You navigate state law, you navigate state law,” said Michael Baughman, an attorney at Troutman Pepper, who represents several universities, many of which have vaccine and mask mandates. “It certainly binds your hands a bit.”
Student and employee litigation due to an unsafe work environment would be hard to win without breaking a standing policy or safety standard, Baughman said. Still, he said universities that are not faced with state laws that generally prohibit mandates can set their own guidelines.
Even where mask and vaccination regulations are prohibited, students and lecturers demand different levels of protection.
Dozens of University of Iowa students pretended to be dying in September to show what could happen without stricter restrictions. They ask the university about distance learning opportunities in addition to vaccination orders
At Texas A&M University – where Ahuero was the first student to die from the virus, according to a campus newspaper – The students’ top priority is to create more hybrid and secluded classes, rather than lecture halls with often-exposed peers, Koite said.
Students also want better contact tracing, more testing, and better housing for people exposed or infected with Covid-19. The university has reported over 4,000 positive Covid-19 cases so far this semester. A petition for the university’s new Covid-19 policy that was launched in mid-September has risen online with over 24,000 signatures.
Texas A&M did not respond to requests for comment.
Some protests and petitions met with moderate success. The University of Minnesota faculty sent a letter to university directors asking for a vaccine mandate, and days later the university agreed, pending full FDA approval of a vaccine. Full approval for the Pfizer vaccine was granted just over a week after the university announced it.
Other schools, such as the University of Utah, also announced a mandate shortly before full approval and renewed demands from students and faculty.
“We thought if there is a chance they might not implement a vaccination mandate, it was because they had either bad or incorrect data on student willingness to consent to a vaccination mandate,” said Devon Cantwell, a director of Unsafe U. , a student advocacy group from the University of Utah. “We have found, with the overwhelming public support from the student body, staff and faculty, that hopefully this would allay any fears of a pushback.”
Unsafe U filed for a vaccine mandate, and just days after the Pfizer vaccine received full approval – legalizing a vaccine requirement in Utah – the university announced the mandate. University leaders spoke with students, faculties, the governor, state lawmakers and Utah education officials before announcing the final policy, Christopher Nelson, vice president of public affairs for health sciences, said in an interview.
Other universities and heads of state were far less receptive.
The Mississippi state college council said in August that Universities could commission Covid-19 vaccines – although no one took the opportunity except in clinical settings. Universities claimed they did not have eligibility for a request.
Students and faculty continued to urge university leaders for mandates. Mississippi State University’s faculty council voted in September the need to support the vaccine, as well as that college student and Faculty University of Mississippi Senate.
Shortly after these votes, the College Council voted to ban colleges from the need for the Covid-19 vaccine, a policy reversal from just a month earlier. None of the board members were made available for comment.
Months of entry by faculty, staff, and students had no obvious policy implications.
“What does it mean not to acknowledge the hundreds of people who have reached out to you with these concerns?” said Andrea Spain, a Mississippi state professor who sent a letter to university and state officials in May asking for mandatory vaccination. “It’s demoralizing.”