August 9, 2021 – The Biden administration has announced initiatives to promote the safety of colleges and universities in person this fall as COVID-19 case rates rise across the country.
A Vax to School College checklist, the addition of COVID-19 vaccination discussions to sports physicals, and the launch of a Week of Action to promote vaccination among youth are some of the new initiatives announced by the administration on August 5.
Increasing vaccination rates is the main theme, with more than 20 million students returning to their undergraduate and graduate studies in the United States this month.
“For young people, getting vaccinated right away is the best way to get back to the things they love, like playing sports, completing their studies, and spending time with friends and loved ones,” the administration stated in a news release.
“College campuses are really about bonding, roommates, parties, and sporting events. So it is not just classrooms and co-curricular spaces, but social spaces that need to be considered as well,” Preeti Malani, MD, director of health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told a news conference on July 27 sponsored by the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA).
“We saw this last year. Even with good attempts at testing and masking and social distancing, it was really difficult to prevent the spread of COVID,” said Malani, who is also a member of IDSA and a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Michigan.
“Invariably, when the outbreaks occurred, there was a social connection,” he continued.
In person, if possible
Although the Biden administration also released a guide for kindergarten through high school students returning to in-person learning, “the big difference from the K-12 space is that college students are eligible for vaccination, in general, “Malani said.
Although uncertainties persist, particularly with the increase in COVID-19 cases in the summer driven largely by the Delta variant, there is consensus among experts that the goal is to safely return to in-person learning.
“We know that children must return to learning in person, given the significant negative impacts that have resulted from not attending school in person over the past year,” said Tina Q. Tan, MD, pediatric infectious diseases assistant physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago said during the briefing.
“The expectation now is that it will be completely in person,” said Tan, who is also a fellow at IDSA and a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. But he warned that if the rise in COVID-19 cases continues, “some schools may revert to a hybrid model.”
In-person learning is also expected for higher education, Malani said, but a large COVID-19 outbreak on a campus could change that.
Backpack, laptop and vaccine?
The Biden administration’s Vax to School College checklist highlights eight ways colleges and universities can increase awareness of COVID-19 vaccines. Another goal is to provide access to immunization when students return to campus.
This initiative is based on the work of almost 900 universities participating in the COVID-19 College Vaccination Challenge. These institutions agreed to work to increase vaccination rates for students.
The administration is also freeing up resources to help establish pop-up vaccination clinics in K-12 schools and on college campuses.
During a press conference at the White House on August 5, a reporter asked about the promotion of vaccination among students in historically black colleges and universities.
“I visited Howard University about a month ago and was very impressed with the way they dealt with the vaccination clinics at their facilities,” said US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who joined Secretary of White House press Jen Psaki at the briefing at the time.
“And we had students from Howard University who administered the vaccine. They are using their name in the community to build trust in the community, the black community, so they feel comfortable coming in.”
Including COVID-19 vaccination counseling in sports physicals is another initiative announced in the Biden administration fact sheet when returning to school safely. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and nine other organizations issued a consensus statement on August 5.
These groups urge all healthcare providers to inquire about COVID-19 vaccination status and to administer the vaccine when available during sports physical exams. The AAP has also updated its sports physical forms to include language about COVID-19 vaccination.
The strategy could make a big difference, with about 60% to 70% of children and teens participating in organized sports across the country, notes the AAP.
Malani said the impact of COVID-19 on college sports was disappointing in 2020, but had a more positive tone for this school year, given the higher vaccination rates.
“I am one of the many people who are grateful that fall looks more typical in terms of sporting events,” he said.
Encouraging more youth to get vaccinated and offering accessible ways to get vaccinated in local communities is part of Back to School Action Week sponsored by the US Department of Health and Human Services and partner organizations.
HHS plans to engage school districts, students, teachers, national organizations, local government leaders, businesses, social media influencers, celebrities, and thousands of volunteers across the country in the effort, which will take place from 7 to August 15. Plans include more than 200 immunization events targeting K-12 and college students.
“Right now, the vaccine requirements are a bit patchy,” Malani said. He said that most universities and colleges have policies that encourage or require vaccination.
There is very little certainty as the pandemic continues to change, “but I can say that campuses that are highly vaccinated will be in the best position to avoid major disruptions this fall,” he said.
Welcoming international students, numbering 7,000, or about 15% of the University of Michigan student body, presents another challenge.
“It is complicated because vaccination is not available in all parts of the world. We are recommending that students get vaccinated wherever they are if they can do it,” Malani said.
It is unlikely that there are national mandates
“It would be difficult to have a federal mandate, probably not impossible, but politically difficult,” Malani said in response to a question from a reporter about federal vaccine requirements.
“I would support employers and schools to take a closer look at what they can do to go further,” he continued. “We have to do something besides say, ‘He’s going to get vaccinated.’
Malani herself is the mother of college-age students.
“When I think about sending them to campus, there are a number of risks in my mind about their safety, their well-being and their academics,” he said. “Returning to face-to-face learning is not zero risk, returning to campus is not zero risk.”
But, he noted, “we can do everything we can to keep that risk low.”