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The Delta variant threatens to derail students’ return to college campuses

August 17, 2021, 11:14 PM UTC

Usually at this time of year, Mark Vopat, an ethics professor at Youngstown State University, is busy preparing lesson plans. This year he was helping stage a protest of the college’s COVID-19 safety policies. With students and faculty set to head back to campus at the end of the month, Youngstown State is currently encouraging, but not requiring, vaccines and mask-wearing among students and staff.

All around the U.S., millions of college students, professors, and staff are set to return to campuses this fall. But with COVID-19 cases surging, many worry about the danger posed by mass COVID outbreaks and the possibility that public health crisis could send everyone back to virtual classes.

“What’s in place right now is just not acceptable and goes against the CDC guidelines,” Vopat, a member of the union faculty, told Fortune on Tuesday. “We have none of the sort of recommended protections in place other than, if you feel it necessary, where a mask, and if you feel like it, you should social distance,” he said. “From my perspective, they’re just woefully inadequate.” He added that in many classrooms, social distancing is impossible and ventilation is poor.

“You’re putting me in a petri dish for an hour and 15 minutes when I’m teaching,” Vopat said, adding that while he’s fully vaccinated, one of the big concerns he has is contracting a breakthrough infection or bringing home COVID to his family and friends.

While about 62% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, the rate among college-aged Americans is much lower. Only about 45.5% of those ages 18 to 24 are fully vaccinated, according to the Mayo Clinic. About 56.4% have received at least one dose. 

That low overall vaccination rate complicates the situation for college and university administrators as students and staff begin to flood classrooms and dormitories this fall, especially with the highly contagious Delta variant surging across the U.S.

Currently about 84% of U.S. counties are experiencing  “high” levels of COVID transmissions while an additional 10% are experiencing “substantial” rates. That could easily spike at colleges where students and staff are typically in close quarters. Duke University, for example, has already reported over 30 cases of COVID on campus in the past week. 

Over 540 colleges, universities, and university systems—such as those in California and Colorado—are requiring students to get vaccinated before returning to campus. But that’s only a fraction of the roughly 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., and many aren’t putting additional safety requirements in place such as universal mask mandates and social distancing protocols. 

Many schools feel under pressure to return to in-person learning because the students prefer it to online learning. A full 75% of college students were not satisfied with the quality of their virtual classes, according to a recent survey by OneClass of over 17,000 college students. And the vast majority, 93%, of students surveyed felt colleges and universities should lower their tuition if they only offered online classes again this fall. Which could mean big losses for universities already suffered from lower enrollment and higher costs.

The lack of required precautions is causing many faculty and staff around the country to voice concerns about safety amid back-to-school plans. Professors at South Carolina-based Clemson University are planning a walk-out on Wednesday to protest the administration’s refusal to implement a mask mandate. Other professors and college faculty have signed petitions and openly voiced opposition to administration safety plans. 

Meanwhile, at least one professor has quit over his university’s COVID protocols. Jeremy Fischer, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Alabama Huntsville posted a photo of his resignation letter on Monday. 

“We know what it takes to protect community health and very likely save lives, and we have the ability to do it; what is lacking is the collective willingness to do so. And I find myself compelled to consider whether my continued relationship with UAH might render me complicit in a moral atrocity,” Fischer wrote in his resignation letter posted to Twitter

The University of Alabama did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Whether these protests and objections from professors, faculty and staff will prompt their administrations’ to reevaluate their COVID safety protocols or back-to-school plans remains to be seen. 

But many students also support vaccine mandates. Nearly 7 in 10 college students said they support COVID vaccine requirements for in-person classes, according to a survey by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse published in June. About 58% of parents believe colleges and universities should require students to be vaccinated, according to a June Kaiser Family Foundation survey. Support for mask mandates, however, varies widely.

A few colleges have already announced they are delaying their in-person plans. In Texas, the University of Texas at San Antonio and the Alamo Community College District announced they would be conducting online classes for at least the first few weeks of the semester. California State University, Stanislaus told students they would start remotely and then transition to in-person classes on Oct. 1, 2021. 

Meanwhile Philadelphia last week announced a vaccine mandate for colleges and universities in the city. Those seeking an exemption generally will need to undergo PCR testing once per week or antigen testing twice per week or attend classes virtually. Schools with more than 90% vaccination rate among students and staff may offer the option of double masking and maintaining six feet of social distance. 

“The updated policies we announced today are critical to slowing the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, which is more dangerous and transmissible than earlier forms of the virus,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “The science is clear: these measures will protect Philadelphians and save lives.”

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