Politics of vaccine, mask mandates complicate return to normal on college campuses

Millions of students returned to campus this fall for the in-person college experience, as the Delta variant continues to impact parts of the U.S. Some schools have strict mandates for vaccination, testing and masking. In other places, that’s not an option. Hari Sreenivasan begins the latest in our “Rethinking College” series at two of America’s flagship universities.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Millions of students returned to campus this fall for the in-person college experience, as the Delta variant continues to affect parts of the U.S.

    Some schools have strict mandates for vaccination, testing, and masking. In other places, that is not an option.

    Hari Sreenivasan begins our latest Rethinking College series at two of America's flagship universities, first in Arizona.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Theater Course 133 at the University of Arizona in Tucson is a workout. Throw a mask on while shuffling and sliding, and it can be even harder.

    But sophomores like Brach Drew and Sophia Scarsi say it's no problem, if it means getting back in the swing of college.

  • Brach Drew, College Student:

    I heard someone say that we're like the second freshmen because this is our first more normal experience of college. And for some people, it's their first time coming to campus.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And do you feel safe on campus, COVID-wise?

  • Sophia Scarsi, College Student:

    Definitely. We still wear masks in my classes, and it's been great. I mean, anything to be in person, I would do.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For the first time since the pandemic began, college campuses are starting to look and sound once again like… college campuses. The football games, the big lectures, the spontaneous hangouts.

    It's just as President Robert Robbins imagined it a few months ago, too. Well, almost.

    Dr. Robert Robbins, President, University of Arizona: We thought we were heading into last summer with no problems coming in, and then Delta happened.

    So, that's a real concern for us. But, this year, the difference is, we at least, even though we're walking a tight-wire, we have got a safety net, which is the vaccine.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Robbins estimates that more than 70 percent of the students on his campus are vaccinated. But he can't be certain. He cannot require students to tell him.

    That's because Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has banned several mandates related to COVID. For higher ed, no mandates for vaccines or testing. Technically, no masking mandates either, at least if they're based on vaccination status.

    The University of Arizona and other schools are still requiring them indoors if social distancing is not possible. They say they are not discriminating against the unvaccinated if everyone needs to wear one.

  • Dr. Robert Robbins:

    And we have had great compliance. We have had no issues with that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Would you like to be able to say, listen, if you're not vaccinated, don't show up here, and don't risk yourself or other people?

  • Dr. Robert Robbins:

    Yes, I would like to be able to do that, but I can't. So we're working around the realities that we have.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Meanwhile, Arizona's COVID-19 case and death counts remain stubbornly high. As in much of the nation, the Delta variant is fueling sickness and death.

    So, Robbins, a medical doctor, is using work-arounds. For those who vaccinate, there are chances to win game-day tickets and free parking. Gift cards to encourage testing. And more underground methods, you could say.

  • Wastewater Tester:

    We know which streams go to which dorms.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Like testing the wastewater of individual dorms to spot an outbreak early.

    Dr. Ian Pepper, University of Arizona: Poop doesn't lie. If the virus is in the wastewater, it emanated from someone.

    When the samples get here in this lab, the goal is to process the samples as quickly as possible.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Dr. Ian Pepper leads the center conducting the wastewater testing. It's helped the university pinpoint COVID-positive students and get them into an isolation dorm while they're still asymptomatic and less contagious.

    If the university did not have a system like yours, kind of an early warning and an early detection system, where would it be?

  • Dr. Ian Pepper:

    Shut down, losing $100 million. We need to keep monitoring because, remember, we're not allowed to mandate testing of students, and so the upper administration is really flying blind without the wastewater data.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It's the kind of non-compulsory approach many believe is appropriate at this stage of the pandemic.

    Shelley Kais is chairman of the Pima County Republican Party. She's focused on vaccination and masking requirements, and the university, she says, has already crossed the line on indoor masking.

  • Shelley Kais, Chair, Pima County Republican Party:

    Everyone has the right to choose. If you want to wear a mask, you absolutely should wear a mask, without any feeling like anyone is retaliating against you. Absolutely, we should honor and respect everybody's decision to wear a mask or not and to vaccinate or not.

    When you start telling people what they have to wear, what they have to do, I'm never going to be in favor of that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The belief is widespread enough that at least 15 states, mostly in the South and West, have barred vaccine or mask mandates at public institutions of higher education.

    At the same time, more than 1,000 colleges and universities have vaccine requirements, most in states that voted for President Biden last fall. On both sides, the rules are being challenged in the courts.

    Jim Ryan, President, University of Virginia: Do you know how case numbers are across Virginia?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jim Ryan is president of University of Virginia, where 238 students were disenrolled for failing to comply with the school's vaccine mandate.

  • Jim Ryan:

    If you're going to have a policy that requires people to get vaccinated, you need to be willing to enforce it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    He says it's no different than the other vaccines universities require. And he feels lucky to be in Virginia, where a tough stance is possible.

    Here at UVA, 97 percent of students have shown proof they're fully vaccinated. The rest have received medical or religious exemptions and submit to mandated weekly testing.

  • Jim Ryan:

    If you ask me what is the most important thing to getting back to normal and feeling safe about it, it is the high vaccination rate, bar none.

    So, I feel grateful that we have the ability to take the precautions that our medical experts are telling us we should take.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For now, students must be masked inside. Same goes for professors, unless they're six feet from students and behind Plexiglas.

    The clear-cut rules feel reassuring to Sarita Mehta.

  • Sarita Mehta, College Student:

    I feel way safer in all my interactions in small classrooms, in the stadium that's packed, knowing that, A, I'm a lot safer being vaccinated, but, B, and just as importantly, the people around me are vaccinated and are not at risk either.

    And I think that's an important part of it, too. And that kind of ties back to the larger community as, like, we all can count on each other to be safe.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But the balance seems off to others. Grad student Tristan Baird was shocked by the national headlines about his school kicking out students.

  • Tristan Baird, College Student:

    The disenrollment, to me, I just — I don't know. I think it is — it's very authoritarian and just severe to me. I don't like the idea of saying, if you don't agree with this particular health mandate, that you are no longer allowed to come back and finish your degree.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Still, recent national polls show that students overwhelmingly support vaccine and mask mandates, even on campuses that do not have them.

    One ominous reason may be that several universities, from Texas to California to Connecticut, have already reverted to virtual learning for parts of this fall, as COVID cases soared.

    That's why Brach Drew at University of Arizona is not above asking his fellow students to wear a mask, whether it's required or not.

  • Brach Drew:

    So, I say, like we don't want to go backwards. This is for the sake of your college experience.

    And some girl walked in — I was like: "Hey, do you have a mask on you?"

    And she said: "Oh, yes, you're right, I don't want to go back on Zoom."

    And I was like: "You're right. That's right."


  • Brach Drew:

    "Say it again. Say it louder. Spread that."

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For now, Drew and his friends are holding their breath that this feeling of a real college experience lasts. They know what it feels like to lose it.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan in Tucson, Arizona.

Listen to this Segment