As students head to college this fall, hundreds of schools are requiring employees and students to be vaccinated against covid, wear masks on campus or both.
But at some schools, partisan politics have bolstered efforts to stymie public health protections.
Events at the University of South Carolina, in a deeply conservative state, demonstrate the limits of political pressure in some cases, even though "South Carolina is a red state and its voters generally eschew mandates," said Jeffrey Stensland, a spokesperson for the school.
As the fall semester approached, Richard Creswick, an astrophysics professor at the University of South Carolina, was looking forward to returning to the classroom and teaching in person. He felt it would be fairly safe. His graduate-level classes generally had fewer than a dozen students enrolled, and the school had announced it would require everyone on campus to wear masks indoors unless they were in their dorm rooms, offices or dining facilities. For Creswick, 69, that was important because he did not want his working on campus to add to the covid risk for his wife, Vickie Eslinger, 73, who has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
But state Attorney General Alan Wilson weighed in early in August, sending a letter to the school's interim president, Harris Pastides, that a budget provision passed by the state legislature prohibited the university from imposing a mask mandate. Pastides, who previously served as dean of the university's school of public health, rescinded the mask mandate, although he encouraged people to still use them.
"We were very upset," Creswick said.
After the university revoked its mask mandate, within days Wilson sent out a campaign fundraising letter touting his intervention in public health measures and stating, "The fight over vaccines and masks has never been about science or health. It's about expanding the government's control over our daily lives."
Creswick and Eslinger, who felt strongly that the mask mandate was indeed about health, filed a lawsuit, arguing that the legislative provision cited by the attorney general did not prohibit a universal mask mandate. The state Supreme Court took up the case on an expedited basis and on Aug. 20 ruled 6-0 in their favor.
The school immediately reinstated its mask mandate and other colleges in the state followed suit.
After the court ruling, Creswick said he heard from professors at several other South Carolina colleges. "They're calling me a hero," he said, sounding bemused.
The attorney general's office didn't respond to a request for comment.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone at colleges and universities wear masks indoors, even if they are fully vaccinated, in locales with substantial or high transmission of the coronavirus. Most of the country meets that standard at this point. The CDC also recommends that colleges offer and promote covid vaccines.
To be sure, many colleges and universities already require students to mask up or be vaccinated.
As of Aug. 26, the Chronicle of Higher Education had tallied 805 campuses that require at least some employees or students to be vaccinated. Most schools grant exemptions from the vaccine mandate, often for religious or medical reasons. And hundreds of colleges are requiring students and staff members to wear masks on campus this fall, according to a running tally by University Business.
Still, 12 conservative-leaning states prohibit vaccine mandates at higher education institutions, according to an analysis by the National Academy for State Health Policy. The rules vary, and some apply only to public institutions. The group is in the process of analyzing mask mandate bans that apply to colleges and universities.
At Indiana University, a group of students challenged the school's vaccine mandate on the grounds it violated their constitutional right to "bodily integrity, autonomy and medical choice." The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit refused to block the school's policy. The court reasoned the universities can decide what they need to do to keep students safe in communal settings. The students then appealed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who refused without explanation to block the mandate.
Red states with Republican leadership are hardly the only ones where colleges and universities are facing restrictions on their ability to put public health protections in place. But for teachers, whose professions are rooted in encouraging the pursuit of learning and knowledge, prohibitions that fly in the face of science and jeopardize public health can be tough to swallow.
"It's completely demoralizing to realize that our health and safety has been trumped by politics," said Becky Hawbaker, an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, who is president of United Faculty, the union representing 600 faculty members at the school. "It seems like you know a train wreck is coming and you're sounding the alarm, and no one seems to listen."
At the University of Georgia in Athens in August, a professor who made masks mandatory in his classroom because of his advanced age and health conditions promptly resigned when a student refused to don a mask. Georgia's university system does not mandate masks or vaccines.
In May, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed a law prohibiting mask mandates at K-12 schools, and within city and county governments. A few days later, the Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees the University of Northern Iowa, the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, lifted emergency rules that had been in place the previous year requiring indoor masking and physical distancing at the colleges.
The University of Northern Iowa held classes in person throughout the past school year, without major problems, using those mask and distancing requirements, Hawbaker said. But with the rise of the delta variant and the increase in covid cases in the community, now is not the time to remove safety restrictions, the union asserts.
So far, more than 200 people have signed an August letter sent by the union to the Board of Regents requesting mask and vaccine mandates on campus, and classroom changes to allow physical distancing, Hawbaker said.
"Both the Board and our universities recommend and encourage individuals to wear a mask or other face covering while on campus, and anyone who wishes to wear a mask may do so," Josh Lehman, a spokesperson for the board, wrote in an email. The board also supports students and staffers getting covid vaccines, which are available on campus.
At Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, associate professor Kimberly Paul planned a protest with other faculty members in August to push for a mask mandate. After the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Creswick, Clemson announced a mask mandate until Oct. 8. That stretch covers the period of greatest covid risk, according to the school's modeling.
Paul and her colleagues want a mask mandate for the entire semester, after which the need can be reevaluated, she said.
"I'm a biologist, and this hits close to home," she said.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.