A tale of 2 pandemics: Some universities halt mask, vaccine mandates, while others require booster shots

A University of Southern California student in Los Angeles displays a
University of Southern California students in Los Angeles display their "Trojan Check" barcode to gain access to campus. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images).

Students are back in 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.

More universities halt mask and vaccine mandates for students and staff

Last week, several Tennessee universities announced that they would no longer have mask or vaccine mandates after a series of legal moves. Now, schools in other states are following suit.

The University of Missouri announced this week that the school will no longer impose a mask or vaccine mandate, after a federal judge issued an injunction against President Biden's Executive Order 14042, the federal vaccine mandate for federal contractors.

"Earlier today, a federal court issued an order that blocks the federal government from enforcing the vaccination mandate for the time being," according to a letter from school officials to the school community that was shared online Thursday. "As a result, the university is suspending the requirement for faculty, staff and student employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or have an approved exemption. Employees are no longer required to show documentation of vaccination or apply for an exemption at this time."

However, the letter added, "This is a fluid situation," saying "if the federal contractor vaccination mandate comes back into effect, we will update you of changes to the policy."

Texas's Baylor University announced on Tuesday that its vaccine mandate would be lifted, also due to the federal injunction. "Baylor University is no longer legally compelled to require that its employees be vaccinated and will not be requiring its employees to be vaccinated at this time," the notice reads. "Please note that just as there continues to be uncertainty with COVID-19, the legal environment regarding the pandemic remains fluid as well. The University continues to monitor both closely and will provide updates to the campus as necessary."

Oklahoma State University has also paused its vaccine mandate.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Yahoo Life that the removal of these vaccine mandates is "disappointing to many of us in infectious disease and public health." They've also "created a terrific amount of confusion," he said. "Fortunately, the substantial majority of these student bodies are vaccinated at this point, and that's a good thing."

Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, told Yahoo Life that the removal of vaccine mandates is "unfortunate" and "misinformed." He added, "Hopefully, other institutions won't make the same error."

Several universities require booster shots

The University of Notre Dame announced this week that it is requiring students to get a COVID-19 booster shot in order to retain their fully vaccinated status. The school, which required that all students be fully vaccinated or obtain a medical or religious exemption before they arrived on campus in the fall, said that the new requirement applies to undergraduate, graduate and professional students who have been fully vaccinated for more than six months.

Northeastern University announced on Thursday that it was updating its vaccination requirement to include booster shots, too. "All faculty and staff who work at one of Northeastern University's U.S. campuses, and all students attending or visiting a U.S. campus, are required to receive a booster shot by January 18, 2022, or seven days after they become eligible," a notice to the school community read.

Syracuse University and the University of New Mexico have also expanded their vaccine mandates to include boosters.

Experts are mixed on this issue. "I think there will eventually be efforts to define 'completely vaccinated' as two doses plus a booster or, in the case of Johnson & Johnson, two doses," Schaffner says. While some schools have moved to require boosters, he doesn't anticipate that this will become a widespread trend just yet. "It would just confuse things more, but I hope I'm wrong about that," he said.

"There is no scientific basis to say that somebody with two doses of a vaccine is equivalent to someone with zero doses," Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who is an expert on infectious diseases, told Yahoo Life. "Universities need to think about what your goal is and the fact that COVID-19 is not something that can be eradicated or eliminated. If people are protected from serious disease, that should be enough."

Colleges deal with Omicron as cases are confirmed on campus

The Omicron variant has been detected on several college campuses across the country. The COVID-19 strain, which the World Health Organization (WHO) named as a variant of concern on Nov. 26, has been detected at Louisiana's Tulane University and Los Angeles' University of Southern California.

Tulane officials announced on Monday that a graduate student living off-campus had been diagnosed with COVID-19 due to the variant. "This individual has been in isolation since first testing positive for COVID and all close contacts have been notified," the notice read. School officials also said that they "are confident that following established COVID-19 protocols, including frequent testing, receiving vaccination boosters and social distancing and masking in certain situations as recommended by the CDC, are the best way to protect our community." However, Tulane has a "mask optional" policy, allowing people to decide whether they want to wear a mask.

According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the Omicron case at USC is a student who returned to the area after traveling to the East Coast. "The individual is fully vaccinated, had mild symptoms, and is self-isolating," it said. The student did not attend classes or organized activities on campus while they were infectious, USC officials said.

USC currently requires that people on campus over the age of 2 wear a face mask while indoors on campus. The school also requires that students, faculty and staff be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they have an approved exemption due to a medical issue or religious belief.

Experts urge college students to get vaccinated against COVID-19, if they aren't already. "It is likely vaccination will offer some protection, although we aren't yet sure how much," Watkins said. "Students should also wear masks when in public, social distance and wash their hands frequently."

Schaffner agreed. "Vaccination, vaccination, vaccination," he said. "And get the booster if you're eligible."

Family knowingly sends COVID-positive child to school, triggering outbreak

A California school district shared this week that one of its families sent their child to school while knowing that the child had tested positive for COVID-19. The child, who has not been publicly identified, continued to go to class at Neil Cummins Elementary School in Corte Madera, Calif., for more than a week after testing positive for the virus, according to a letter sent to the school community.

Brett Geithman, superintendent of the Larkspur-Corte Madera School District in Marin County, where the elementary school is located, told Yahoo Life that the school only learned of the child's positive test result when someone from the Marin County Health and Human Services Department called to ask why the school didn't document the student's infection.

School staff quickly messaged parents on Nov. 18 to ask them to get tested in the morning at the school's gym. Seven tested positive for COVID-19, including two who are thought to have caught the virus at school. Those who were exposed were sent into a "modified quarantine," which meant they could go to school but not engage in any extracurricular activities, including family gatherings or travel.

The district's "corrective action included reporting to required agencies, such as public health and law enforcement," Geithman said. "We have provided them with all necessary information regarding this case," he continues. "Next steps are in the hands of the district attorney. ...This family's choice is an anomaly but serves as a reminder that we are all in this together. This is a time when every person must act with integrity."

The parents may face a fine for violating the Marin County health order that requires people who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate, the Associated Press reported.

Adalja, the Johns Hopkins scholar, said that sending children to school with a known case of COVID-19 is "dangerous." He added, "it can spread the infection to others and jeopardize people's health, as well as in-person schooling."

Schaffner, of Vanderbilt, said that moves like this "interrupt the whole educational enterprise."

"It's not only unfortunate, [but it's also] it's very irresponsible," he explained. "Parents deserve to be publicly called out for this kind of behavior."

Pennsylvania school district closes after several bus drivers test positive for COVID-19

Pennsylvania's Delaware Valley School District announced on Twitter early Tuesday morning that schools were closed for the day "due to an insufficient number of bus drivers." A follow-up message on the school's website elaborated further.

"As of right now, we have 16 bus drivers that are either COVID positive, symptomatic or a close contact," the message from superintendent John J. Bell read. "Our goal is to have all kids in school. If we can’t have all kids in school, the next best thing is to have all elementary students in school. I say this for three reasons: 1) elementary students can't be left home alone so virtual learning for them creates a hardship for working parents, 2) the secondary students already have their Chromebooks to use and 3) it is a lot easier to teach a high school class online than it is to teach a kindergarten class online."

For the rest of the week, the district has had grades pre-K through fifth open for in-person learning, with middle and high school students taking classes via Zoom. "We will have to monitor the situation daily to ensure we have enough buses to continue with this plan," Bell wrote. "I know this plan isn't ideal but few things have been during the pandemic. I appreciate everyone’s understanding and flexibility as we try to keep as many kids as possible learning in person."

Bell told Yahoo Life that the situation won't be resolved next week, either. "Most of the drivers will still be in quarantine all next week," he said. "Next week will look similar to this week, with a few changes to get more kids in school."

Reports have flooded in from across the country of school bus driver shortages during the pandemic — and they're expected to continue. "School buses are a rather enclosed environment, and there are a lot of children in them who are chattering, laughing and having a good time," Schaffner said. "Drivers have close contact over prolonged periods of time with those children, so it comes as no surprise that so many have tested positive for COVID-19." That's especially true, Schaffner said, given that the "vast majority" of children are unvaccinated in many areas of the country.

"Many bus drivers are older and thus more vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19," Watkins said, adding that this puts them at an even greater risk.

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