By Hunter Britt
Virginia universities plan a return to campuses in the fall, but there are questions if the COVID-19 vaccine can be mandated.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only authorized the vaccine for emergency purposes, according to Lisa Lee, professor of public health at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The vaccine does not yet have full FDA approval.
The vaccine was authorized for emergency use, so people have to be given the choice to take it and be informed of the consequences if they don’t, Lee said.
“Many legal scholars have interpreted that as saying that people cannot be required to take a vaccine that is under an emergency use authorization,” Lee said. “They can be when it has full approval, so that’s where the hitch is.”
Rutgers University in New Jersey may have been the first to require the COVID-19 vaccination for returning fall students, according to Inside Higher Ed, a publication tracking higher education news. Since then, multiple universities have said the vaccine will be mandatory, with accommodations for documented medical or religious exemptions.
Colleges are on unfamiliar legal ground with the decision to require COVID-19 vaccinations, Inside Higher Ed reported.
Currently, Virginia colleges request documentation that a student was vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, poliomyelitis, measles and mumps.
Some universities in the District of Columbia and Maryland have announced a mandatory fall vaccine policy, including American, Georgetown, George Washington, Johns Hopkins and Trinity Washington universities.
Virginia universities are still contemplating the legality of requiring the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Virginia Tech is currently thinking about this decision and our university spokespeople will keep both the campus community as well as the larger community aware of what they ultimately decide,” Lee said.
Lee said it makes “a lot of sense to mandate the vaccine,” both from a public health and ethical perspective.
“We know that young people tend to gather and that’s what really spreads this infection,” Lee said. “In this pandemic, we have to take care of ourselves for sure, but we also have to take care of each other, and the vaccine helps us do both of those things.”
Mixed reaction to mandatory vaccine
College students across the commonwealth are making their opinions on the vaccine known, and many differ drastically. Grey Mullarkey, a communication arts major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said the vaccine should be mandatory for college students and employees.
“The only reason I think a student should not be required to have it to come back to campus is if they have an extreme allergic reaction to vaccines,” Mullarkey said. “I think that all the anti-vax propaganda and making the vaccine a political statement is dangerous and completely counterproductive.”
Mullarkey received a free COVID-19 vaccine through VCU. The process was “quick, easy, and not painful,” Mullarkey said.
Other students said the vaccine is too new to be mandatory. Dajia Perry, a psychology major at VCU, said the vaccine shouldn’t be required until it has undergone more testing.
“I feel like it’s good that we have a vaccine, but I also think the process was rushed,” Perry said. “As of right now, making it mandatory would make me more reluctant to take it because I would feel like it’s being pushed on me.”
Federal health agencies called for a pause of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this month due to reports of blood clots in some individuals who received it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FDA said these effects “appear to be extremely rare.” Virginia stopped administering the vaccine until the investigation is complete.
Colleges instead are offering employees and students two-dose COVID-19 vaccines. Virginia Tech had sufficient availability of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Mark Owczarski, associate vice president for university relations at Tech, stated over email.
“Virginia Tech has been working with the New River Health District to avail vaccines to all our employees and to all our students,” Owczarski stated.
Tech will continue hosting vaccination clinics until demand has been met, according to Owczarski.
VCU used its Moderna and Pfizer vaccine supply to honor J&J vaccine appointments on the day the latter vaccine was paused.
Fall transition to campus
Virginia universities are announcing a transition back to in-person classes for the fall semester.
VCU will offer in-person and online classes. The university will cap capacity in most buildings, and require employees and students to wear masks and complete a daily health survey.
The University of Virginia in Charlottesville will also return to in-person instruction. The university will provide more details about health and safety plans by July 15.
“After a year in which the pandemic disrupted nearly everything about the UVA experience, we are eager to get back to living, learning, and working together here in Charlottesville and we know you are too,” U.Va. President Jim Ryan, Provost Liz Magill and Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis wrote in a statement.
Tech is currently preparing for a fully in-person fall semester. President Tim Sands stated last month that he is hopeful for a “pre-pandemic experience.”
Many college students are also hopeful for a return to an in-person, college experience. Greta Roberson, a student and employee at George Mason University in Fairfax, said that she and her fellow coworkers were excited about the vaccine and were among the first at Mason to get vaccinated.
“George Mason is pretty liberal and open-minded, so I think the vaccine is a welcome thing for the Mason community,” Roberson said.
Mason plans to offer at least 75% of instruction on campus and to expand residence hall capacity to “near normal levels.” Masks and testing will still be required until public health guidance changes.
Forty percent of Virginians have been vaccinated with at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Parents are changing their minds on in-person school – in most cases, there are no other options
As the Delta variant of COVID-19 takes foot, some parents who chose an in-person option for their kids are rethinking that. But there may not be an alternative in some districts.
Families with Richmond Public Schools had until June 1 to choose between enrolling virtually or attending classes in person. At that point in the summer, COVID-19 vaccines were widely available to adults, new cases had dropped to less than 200 a day, and almost no one had heard of delta, the highly transmissible variant that now accounts for virtually all new infections across the U.S.
“It seemed like we were not at the end of things, but that there was an end coming,” Yeager said. Her four children — none of whom are old enough to be vaccinated — had managed a year of remote school fairly well. But the encouraging outlook convinced Yeager to enroll them in-person.
By the time cases began climbing, it was too late to change her mind. The vast majority of Virginia school divisions, including Richmond, required families to make a decision about the upcoming semester in late May or early June. Virtual enrollment is now closed, and many are denying an influx of requests from parents and students who changed their minds.
Yeager is one of hundreds of families stuck with face-to-face learning even as a third coronavirus surge casts a pall over the school year. Some districts have already quarantined dozens — or hundreds — of students after COVID-19 exposures. Earlier this week, the Virginia Department of Health urged Amherst County to temporarily close all its secondary schools after an outbreak in the district.
But local divisions are limited in how widely, and for how long, they can close schools thanks to a state law mandating in-person instruction (passed in the early, and optimistic, days of Virginia’s vaccine rollout). Late last summer, a spike in cases spurred the majority of districts to reopen with hybrid or fully remote learning plans. This year, with new infections reaching even higher levels, they don’t have that option.
Nor are they required to offer remote instruction. “While school divisions need to provide five days of in-person learning to any family who wants it for their students in the fall, school districts are not obligated to provide a virtual option for all students,” Fairfax County reminded families in May. The vast majority of them — 110 out of 132 local divisions — are using Virtual Virginia, a state-run program with its own teachers and curriculum.
Ten districts aren’t offering any virtual option at all, according to Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education. And some divisions providing their own virtual courses have even tighter restrictions. Fairfax County, for example, is limiting remote learning to students with medical needs documented by a licensed health professional. The deadline to enroll in the program was May 28, and a little more than 400 students, out of roughly 180,000 across the district, are participating.
“Family health/medical conditions are not considered for this program and eligibility is not extended to siblings or other students in a household,” spokesperson Kathleen Miller wrote in a statement on Friday. “Enrolling additional students would require additional staffing, which has already been a significant challenge.”
Providing both in-person and virtual learning, as many schools have done over the course of the pandemic, have created escalating burdens for local divisions — even with millions of dollars in federal aid. In addition to teacher burnout, administrators have struggled to find enough staff to fill instructional and support positions, especially with regular exposures forcing many into quarantine. In a presentation to lawmakers last fall, state Superintendent James Lane described staffing as one of the biggest challenges facing Virginia’s schools.
Those ongoing needs, combined with the state mandate, offer few incentives for schools to continue providing their own remote learning options. Brian Mott, the executive director for Virtual Virginia, said enrollment in the program was open to any student until their district’s deadline. But he also said planning needs made it difficult to accommodate a wave of later registrations.
“We’ve got to make sure we have the appropriate staff to support them,” Mott said. “The other reason is communication. Students don’t just enroll and start the next day. We need to be setting them up and supporting them as soon as possible.”
Many local districts are also limiting virtual enrollment to students who can show they were successful with the modality — another process that takes time, he added. Despite the division-wide policies to curb late registrations, though, that’s exactly what’s happening across the state. Mott said there have been more than 1,200 enrollment requests from individual schools in recent weeks, most of which involve multiple students.
Virtual Virginia is offering a “limited number” of late enrollment slots, with a priority on students with medical needs, students from military families, or transfers who entered a school division after the cut-off date, Pyle said. But some individual districts are seeing even higher demand.
The waitlist for Henrico’s Virtual Academy now sits at more than 3,000 students — an increase of around 800 compared to two weeks prior, the Henrico Citizen reported
As of the 5 p.m. deadline yesterday, the waitlist for Henrico Virtual Academy was at 3,035 students — up from about 800 students just two weeks ago.
— Anna Bryson (@AnnaBryson18) August 26, 2021
The district is attempting to hire more teachers to accommodate the waitlist, according to the Citizen. Other divisions, though, are simply denying the requests.
“Students who have not chosen the virtual option will not be permitted to change to virtual,” said Diana Gulotta, a spokesperson for Prince William County Schools, the second-largest division in the state. “Those with documented health conditions can apply for homebound services.”
Unlike Fairfax County, which is Virginia’s largest school district, Prince William isn’t currently requiring its staff to be vaccinated.
Richmond is another division mandating vaccines for its staff, and Yeager said that’s provided her with some degree of comfort. But while she understands the constraints facing local school districts, she’s frustrated — like many families — over the lack of flexibility amid a constantly changing pandemic.
Delta has changed the conversation, she said. Research on earlier variants indicated that children were less susceptible to COVID-19 than adults and displayed milder symptoms when they contracted the virus. But the rise of delta has corresponded with worrying reports of increasing pediatric cases and hospitalizations, especially in hard-hit areas. Ballad Health, for example — the primary hospital system in far southwestern Virginia — has reported several COVID-19 admissions in their pediatric ICU.
“We are seeing children dying, though I know, intellectually, the chances of that happening are very small,” Yeager said. It’s still not clear if delta presents any more of a risk to children than previous variants. Public health experts have pointed out that pediatric hospitalizations are still the same proportion of the total, but that the overall number is rising given the higher transmissibility of the variant.
Right now, though, delta poses the greatest risk to the unvaccinated — a population that still includes children under 12. Authorization for that age group isn’t expected before the end of this year, according to some federal officials. And many parents aren’t willing to take the risk.
“I would love to be wrong,” Yeager said. “But delta is so terribly infectious. Kids can’t be masked all the time. I don’t see how it’s going to be other than … I can’t even think of a polite way to put it.”
Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.
University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab receives three national awards for Southern Journey Story Map Project
ESRI, the industry standard in the field of mapping technology, awarded the DSL the Best Cartography award and the International Cartographic Association and International Map Industry Association Recognition of Excellence in Cartography award.
The Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond has received three awards for the story map project Southern Journey: The Migrations of the American South, 1790-2010. A story map is a digital project that combines text, interactive maps, and other multimedia content for storytelling.
ESRI, the industry standard in the field of mapping technology, awarded the DSL the Best Cartography award and the International Cartographic Association and International Map Industry Association Recognition of Excellence in Cartography award. The project team includes Justin Madron, GIS project manager, and analyst; Nathanial Ayers, visualization and web designer; and Ed Ayers, Tucker-Boatwright Professor of Humanities.
This year, judges selected award winners from more than 350 map projects they determined best-exhibited excellence in all aspects of map design and cartographic production.
“It’s an honor to be selected for these awards among such stiff competition,” said Madron. “This project allowed us to combine the best tools used in mapping and digital storytelling, and the interactive maps and animations produce a user-friendly way to interact with the data and information.”
The team built this project as a complement to Ed Ayers’ latest book of the same name. Madron and Nathanial Ayers also created the more than 60 maps for the printed book.
“Justin and Nathaniel invented ways to bring printed pages to life, revealing the interwoven complex causes of the ebbs and flows that have shaped the southeastern United States,” said Ed Ayers. As the award committee put it, “The dominant eye-catching topaz-and-turquoise honeycomb maps are highly effective in intentionally addressing the ambiguity of inconsistent geographic areas over time.”
School Board Voted to Require Covid Vaccination for all RPS Teachers, Staff, Contractors, Partners, and Volunteers
The vote was 8-1 in favor of the mandated vaccination.
Last night the Richmond School board voted 8-1 in favor of Superintendent Jason Kamras’ push that all RPS teachers, staff, contractors, partners, and volunteers be required to get the Covid-19 vaccine. The deadline for the vaccination is October 1st approximately three weeks after the start of most schools. Employees can get an exemption from the vaccination for medical or religious reasons.
The lone dissenting vote was Johnathan Young of the 4th District. He feels it’s an issue of trust, “We consistently portray a messaging that we don’t trust them” he stated.
Just last week the entire 4th grade class of Patrick Henry School was quarantined due to 9 positive Covid-19 cases.
You can read RPS’ Health and Safety Measures for Fall 2021 In-Person Instruction. The document outlines all the measures including mask-wearing, physical distancing, HVAC improvements, and more. Below is the section concerning vaccination. It doesn’t reflect the recent board vote mandating vaccination.
Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccinating staff, and students when eligible for vaccination, is a critical layer of prevention and protection for all. Achieving high levels of vaccination among eligible students, teachers and staff is one of the most critical strategies to help schools safely operate.
- Pending Board approval, RPS will require all staff to show proof of vaccination by October 1.
- For those RPS staff who are not yet vaccinated, please check with your healthcare provider or find a location to get a free COVID-19 vaccine at vaccinate.virginia.gov. Additionally, RPS will continue to partner with RCHD/VDH to hold vaccination events.
- Medical and religious exemptions will be granted on a case-by-case basis. To inquire about these exemptions, employees should email the Talent Office at [email protected]; anyone granted an exemption will need to provide proof of a negative COVID test on a weekly basis.
- Employees who do not meet the October 1 deadline (save for those who are granted an exemption) will be subject to progressive discipline, including loss of employment.
- The vaccine mandate will also apply to contractors, partners, and volunteers. They will receive additional information about this directly from the Talent Office.
- While students are not included in the vaccine mandate, we strongly encourage all RPS students aged 12 and older to get vaccinated.
The Richmond and Henrico Health Districts are continuing to host free walk-up vaccination events. You can find the full list as well as a way to find local pharmacies that are vaccinating here.