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How Will the COVID-19 Vaccine Impact Colleges?

How Will the COVID-19 Vaccine Impact Colleges?

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Professors Lora Sabin and Sean O'Brien have reached the same conclusion about a COVID-19 vaccine: They're both optimistic that a vaccine will help college return to "normal." But they're being realistic about when that will actually happen.

"If you're expecting 'back to normal' in March, then yes, it's not going to happen that quickly," said O'Brien, clinical associate professor of writing and literature at Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago. "I'm trying not to get too many hopes up about summer...but I'm letting myself be more optimistic about seeing students in person in fall."

The U.S. began administering the Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 14. The vaccine trains the immune system to fight coronavirus. Following two doses, taken three weeks apart, the vaccine offers up to 95% protection against COVID-19, but researchers still don't know how long the vaccine will provide immunity.

Still, the news is encouraging — especially for professors who teach face-to-face. It means an end to the daily anxiety that doing their job could potentially infect themselves or their loved ones.

"We have a huge sense of optimism right now," said Sabin, associate professor of global health at Boston University. "It might be smarter to temper expectations, but hope is also key right now. It's motivating and helps me and my colleagues keep up our spirits."

Medical experts believe the vaccine will help slow down soaring infection levels in the United States, which rank the worst globally. It should also reduce the number of outbreaks at colleges. According to a New York Times survey of more than 1,900 colleges and universities, there have been more than 397,000 cases and at least 90 deaths since the pandemic began.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Colleges

More than 397,000 cases

At least 90 deaths

Source: New York Times, as of Dec. 11

But the vaccine won't bring infections to a screeching halt. There is still a long way to go until it is entirely safe at college campuses, said Paul Finkelman, president of Gratz College.

"The likelihood of the vaccines changing things quickly is pretty small," he said. "I think people are living in a fantasy world that, somehow, we're going to announce the use of vaccines and everything is just going to go away. It's not going away; it's going to take a while for the vaccines to kick in."

It will take time for vaccines to be distributed to college campuses. Due to the health risks they face, 21 million healthcare workers and 3 million elderly Americans living in long-term care homes will get the vaccine first.

Who Will Get the Vaccine First?

21 million healthcare workers and 3 million elderly people

But it's uncertain how states will distribute doses to other groups. Health officials are considering various factors, such as health risks, occupations, and likelihood of exposure, to prioritize some Americans over others.

Exactly where college students, staff, and faculty are on that list is yet to be determined. The New York Times, Surgo Foundation, and Ariadne Labs created a vaccine tool that estimates where people with different risk profiles fall in line. The actual wait may be shorter or longer than what is predicted, though.

"I am hopeful that the colleges will be considered educational institutions, like K-12 schools, and therefore college faculty will be able to get the vaccine early," Finkelman said. "Because I think, to the extent that we want to go back into in-person education, we will need it. But I honestly don't know how we will be classified."

There is another dilemma to deal with: mandatory vaccinations. Some colleges and universities may make them a precondition for coming to campus, much like how many schools require that students are up-to-date on certain vaccines before enrollment. This would help prevent the virus's spread in classrooms or communal living spaces, like dorms.

Standard Vaccinations Required by Colleges

  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccine: Protects against meningococcal disease, a bacterial infection that can cause meningitis.
  • Hepatitis B immunization: Prevents a blood-borne infection that causes fever, debility, and jaundice.
  • Whooping cough vaccine booster (Tdap): Provides immunity against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough).
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine: A common virus spread through sexual activity that can cause cervical, penile, anal, throat, or oral cancer.

Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Dr. Jenna Liphart Rhoads, a medical advisor for NurseTogether.com, said safety on campus will largely depend on when people get vaccinated and if vaccinations are mandatory.

"It will make a big difference in helping the college experience return to normal," said Liphart Rhoads, who has a Ph.D. in education with a nursing education concentration from Capella University. "I would hope that most students will be willing to be vaccinated. However, I feel there will need to be some sort [incentive] to receive it."

Finkelman said there may be exceptions for who does and does not get vaccinated based on health or religious considerations. For the most part, he thinks it will be an ordinary step for students to take before taking part in a traditional college experience.

"Colleges are going to say, 'If you want to live in a dormitory, if you want to come to class, you've got to show that you got your two COVID vaccines," Finkelman said.

Campus Life, Post-Vaccine

Still required:

  • Social distancing
  • Masks
  • Testing

Even as vaccinations are rolled out to students, Liphart Rhoads expects campus life to look the same as it does now. She believes masks and social distancing will still be required and enforced on school property until most of the population has been vaccinated.

Many colleges and universities are making in-person instruction work by implementing safety measures, such as daily health checks, social distancing, and masks, but the results have been mixed at best. While a handful of institutions have kept COVID-19 at bay, the New York Times wrote that more than 85 colleges have reported at least 1,000 cases each.

Rather than risk an outbreak, many institutions decided to remain remote-only in fall of 2020. With a vaccine, Sabin believes more schools could safely return to campus for face-to-face classes.

Yet, there are still many questions left unanswered. For Finkelman, the most significant concerns have to do with how long vaccine immunity lasts.

"Everything we're hearing on the news is that once you get the vaccine, you're still not immune for a number of weeks," Finkelman said. "And then you're going to have to get a second vaccine, and nobody is certain as to how long the vaccine is going to work. That is — is the vaccine going to work for a lifetime? Is it going to work for six months? Is it going to work for a certain number of years? Nobody knows that, and so, again, it becomes very hard for us to move forward on how you open colleges."

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: Marko Geber | Getty Images