School report card: Indiana University's vaccine mandate faces backlash, some states make masks in schools optional come fall

·8 min read
Protesters hold signs reading
Anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers gathered at Indiana University's Sample Gates to protest against mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for students, staff and faculty during the upcoming fall semester. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Students are headed back to class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what's unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.

Some Indiana University parents and students are protesting the school's vaccine mandate

Indiana University officials announced on May 21 that the school will require the COVID-19 vaccine for all students, faculty and staff on campus for the fall 2021 semester. 

On Thursday, students and families opposed to the university's policy took part in a "Rally for Medical Freedom" protest.

The university has cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration and other major medical organizations in the U.S. that say COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.

"This new requirement will allow the university to lift most restrictions on masking and physical distancing this fall," the university said in a statement. "Knowing that the vast majority of the IU community is vaccinated is the only way the university can confidently return to in-person classes, more in-person events and a more typical university experience."

More than 305 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the U.S. from December 14, 2020, through June 10, 2021, and the vaccines "have undergone and will continue to undergo the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history," the CDC says. The tracking uses both established and new safety monitoring systems to make sure that COVID-19 vaccines are safe, the agency says.

Kari Bundy, translations coordinator for Children's Health Defense, a nonprofit chaired by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that regularly voices opposition to vaccination policies, spoke at the event. She tells Yahoo Life that her organization joined the protest "because of the safety concerns" of the vaccine requirement. "There are genuine and sometimes serious risks associated with any vaccine, making it imperative that people always have a choice," she says. "What we're seeing with requirements such as these involve coercion and bullying over an experimental vaccine, the long-term effects of which are entirely unknown."

Bundy says that "people, not governments or private businesses, should make health care decisions for themselves and for their families." She adds, "We hope that Indiana University will do the right thing and drop this and any other attempts to infringe upon the freedom of their students, staff and faculty."

Protesters holding placards reading
Protesters holding placards at Indiana University's Sample Gates. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Indiana University spokesperson Chuck Carney tells Yahoo Life that the vaccine mandate was created to try to make campus life safer for students, faculty and staff. "We're trying to get back to the things they told us they wanted: full classes, the ability to have lunch in a lunchroom next to friends and full capacity events — really having the college experience that they felt like they missed in the pandemic," he says. "Having the vaccine is the way that they can move forward safely and have a more normal atmosphere."

Under the mandate, all students, faculty and staff should have their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by July 1 in order to meet the university's requirement that they be fully vaccinated by Aug. 15 or when they first return to campus, whichever is earlier.

There are religious and medical exemptions "but if someone doesn't have one of those and hasn't complied [with the mandate], it could result ultimately in an expulsion or dismissal," Carney says. However, he adds, "we hope it won't get to that point."

Ultimately, Carney says, school officials "believe this is the safest route forward."

Cincinnati Public Schools may make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for teachers and staff

The Cincinnati Public Schools system is mulling over a vaccine mandate for faculty and staff for the 2021-2022 school year. The district's board of education discussed the possibility during a board meeting on Monday.

Krista Boyle, chief communications and engagement officer for Cincinnati Public Schools, tells Yahoo Life that the board "discussed a potential vaccine policy" at the board meeting, but that nothing is definite at this point. "Next steps are for the policy committee to gather feedback from additional stakeholders, including unions and partners, and bring a recommendation to an upcoming board meeting," she says. 

It's unclear at this point what overall consensus from the community is. The school district is the third-largest in Ohio and serves 36,000 students from preschool to 12th grade. 

While vaccine mandates are controversial, doctors say they're helpful at preventing the spread of disease. "Yes, the vaccine should be mandated," Dr. John Sellick, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life. "This is a group situation and, even though people will say, 'This is my personal preference,' you're potentially putting other people at risk." 

"I think it's an excellent idea," Dr. Stanley Weiss, professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health, tells Yahoo Life. He also says it's "smart" to reach out to the teachers' unions for help. "It's really important for people to talk peer-to-peer instead of feeling like they're being dictated to," Weiss says.

Still, Sellick says, he's unsure that this will actually come to fruition. "I'm not betting a huge amount of money that it will happen," he says. 

The board plans to work on the policy and is hoping to present it at the next meeting on June 28.

Duke, Penn State and more will have all sporting events at full capacity in the fall

Duke University will open all athletics venues to full capacity in the fall, the school announced on Twitter Tuesday.

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This will mark the end of more than a year of COVID-19 safety protocols and empty arenas. 

Fans were overwhelmingly excited in the comments. "Yeah! Looking forward to the fall!! Go Duke!!" one wrote. "So excited! Let's Go Duke!" another said. 

Duke announced in early April that it will require that all new and returning Duke students present proof of vaccination to the school's student health department before they can enroll for the fall semester. "The past 14 months have been among the most difficult and exhausting in our university's history. Under great stress, and often at great peril, we have remained committed to each other — and to our missions of discovery, research, and patient care," wrote Duke President Vincent E. Price in a letter to the Duke community. "I ask you to join me in taking the next step toward ensuring the safety and vitality of our university community."

Duke isn't the only school planning a return to normal capacity: Penn State, University of Maryland, Arizona State and Coastal Carolina University have also announced their plans to fully open their athletic facilities to fans.

But Weiss is wary of opening venues to full capacity. "I think that's a terrible idea," he says. "Some of these events will be held indoors." Duke has not said yet whether the school plans to require that people who enter its athletic venues be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Sellick says it's still early to make a decision like this. "A lot is going to depend on what happens as we go through the summer and into the fall," he says. "We're going to have to see if one of these more aggressive variants latches on. If so, this is going to create an issue."

Several states are making mask policies optional in schools for next year

The CDC still recommends that students wear face masks in schools, but several states have created policies that allow individual districts to decide on their own mask policies. 

New York state will allow school districts to choose whether they want to lift the requirement that their students wear masks outdoors. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday that state officials are waiting to find out if masks can become optional indoors as well.

In Florida, masks are optional for school districts as well, with some districts already doing away with mandates. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said during a press briefing this week that teachers and students in the state may remove their masks when there are "cases of extreme heat in outdoor settings and for situations indoors or outdoors where wearing a mask would inhibit the individual's health."

Weiss says that the age of students matters with removing vaccine mandates in schools, pointing out that children under the age of 12 currently can't be vaccinated against COVID-19. COVID-19 vaccines could be available for children as young as 6 months in the U.S. by the fall, though, both Pfizer and Moderna told the New York Times this week. Until then, Weiss says, masks should be used. "The push should be to get eligible kids fully vaccinated," he says. "If teachers and staff are fully vaccinated too, we can then reassess. Now is too early, especially for younger ages." 

Local case counts will also matter, Sellick says. "Back to school can be done safely, depending on the local epidemiology, but we still may need to use masks," he says. "And, in more conservative communities where people are resistant to the vaccine, there could be a problem with losing mask mandates in schools."

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