Politics colors return to class in US universities grappling with Covid

Los Angeles (AFP) –


In-person learning is back on the curriculum at universities in the United States this term after a pandemic-imposed hiatus but, like much else in the deeply divided country, how it plays out will depend largely on politics.

Mask mandates and proof of vaccination are compulsory on some campuses, while on others they are prohibited by local law, as states take starkly diverging approaches to rocketing Covid-19 infections, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant.

Around a fifth of the 4,000 colleges and universities surveyed by The Chronicle of Higher Education are requiring students or staff to have a vaccine -- mostly in states that voted for Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

They include California behemoth UCLA, which in April declared that anyone who studies, works or lives on any of its many campuses in the liberal state will have to be "fully vaccinated against Covid-19 at least 14 days before the first day of class for the fall semester."

And with the Delta surge threatening to take swaths of the United States back to the darkest days of the pandemic, UCLA officials last month said everyone -- regardless of vaccination status -- will have to be tested weekly, and will have to wear a mask indoors.

- Outlawed in Texas -

That is a far cry from deep-red Texas, whose Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has banned any publicly funded body from requiring such health measures.

Ideological opposition like that worries some at the University of Texas at Austin, where 51,000 students will be back in class later this month.

"I'm very nervous to return to campus," said Jamie O'Quinn, a teaching assistant and PhD candidate in the sociology department.

"As far as I know, we are going to be required to return to teaching in-person classes, but students will not be required to be vaccinated," she said. "Even though I'm vaccinated, with the Delta variant it still feels incredibly unsafe.

"We're all terrified -- all of my friends, who are being forced to teach in person. We all talk about it all the time."

At least a dozen US states prohibit public universities from requiring the Covid-19 vaccine.

The University of South Carolina ran into problems when it tried to make mask-wearing mandatory in its buildings.

University leaders backed down this month after the attorney general for the staunchly Republican state said the measure lacked legal grounding.

- 'Recipe for disaster' -

Such politically inspired edicts seem to invite disaster, said the American College Health Association.

"Many of these restrictions directly contradict (national government) guidance," the ACHA said in a statement.

"State actions that prevent the use of established and effective public health tools at the same time as Covid-19 cases increase is a recipe for disaster."

But those rulings are popular among some students, who see mask mandates and vaccination requirements as infringing on their individual freedom.

A handful of students went to court to try to overturn an Indiana University requirement that they be masked and inoculated. That effort failed, but other cases are pending, in Indiana and elsewhere.

For Aniffa Kouton, 20, a chemistry student at IU in Bloomington, the lawsuit was "ridiculous."

"IU or any other public university requires you to have vaccines for other illnesses Like the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella), and chickenpox for elementary school," she said, "so I wasn't surprised when they wanted people to have the Covid vaccine.

"People want to politicize this whole disease. It's stupid that people want to fight being safe."

Kouton said the vast majority of her fellow students are on board with the science, and keen to return to a pre-pandemic life.

Of the 360 to 380 students she mentored this summer during a support program, "only 10 had asked to be exempted from the vaccine" for religious or health reasons, she said.

Overall, Kouton added, students are just eager to stay healthy -- and to "go back to something that resembles normal."