By now, most college students have returned to classes for the winter term, or are about to do so. Too many, however, are on laptops, either at home or in their dorms, as their colleges have made the first few weeks of class remote. Emerson, Harvard, Northwestern, Stanford, Columbia, Duke, Yale, Princeton, and UCLA are among numerous universities that ran or are still running remote classes to try to tamp down Covid-19 surges as people come back to campus. In addition, when students do return, many will face restrictions on their ability to socialize, eat in dining halls, attend performances, and otherwise take part in the version of the “normal” life (masked, and with constant Covid-19 testing) they have gotten used to this year. Yale prohibited students from going to restaurants, even if they ate outdoors. Princeton, perhaps in response to much recent negative press, lifted its restriction that only student-athletes could leave the county. However, the university’s travel restriction dictates that indoor trips to New York City and Washington, D.C., are not allowed but indoor trips to New Jersey and Pennsylvania are, and that no indoor trips may include food.
Tufts and Northeastern, both in the Boston area, are exceptions, though students remain subject to booster mandates, masks, and other restrictions. By the end of January, these students will have joined tens, if not hundreds, of thousands mandated to receive a Covid-19 booster—in addition to the first two shots they were required to get—regardless of whether they have had Covid recently, and with little consideration of their individual risk factors, either for a vaccine adverse event such as myocarditis or for contracting a severe Covid infection. Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Oregon, is requiring faculty and students to do all those things, plus wear KN95 or N95 masks. An email to faculty provided the rationale that N95-style masks are more effective than cloth masks or surgical masks. While studies done on mannequins in controlled experimental chambers suggest N95s do a better job filtering air than cloth or surgical masks, extrapolating these findings to faculty and students who touch their faces, break the seal, sip their coffee, and otherwise do not behave like mannequins is a stretch. To assert, absent any real-world data, that these masks will meaningfully lower SARS-CoV-2 transmission in healthy vaccinated populations is misleading at best.
In the past two weeks, parents, students, and some faculty have pushed back. Around the country, thousands of parents, students, and alumni signed open letters to administrators at hundreds of universities and posted petitions on Change.org and Facebook. Twitter groups critical of booster mandates now have thousands of people sharing resources and letters. Students at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern published opinion pieces in campus newspapers speaking up for their right to have a normal campus experience.
Will universities listen? Harvard has taken a small step in the right direction, announcing that it will no longer use isolation dorms and will rely on students to contact-trace themselves. But that’s not enough. Harvard is still maintaining two weeks of “grab and go” dining and requiring boosters to start the semester.
With these policies, administrators are imposing the strictest restrictions and harshest mandates on primarily young, healthy people who are least likely to benefit from them. These constraints may even harm their mental health, which has deteriorated during the pandemic, and the booster requirement may cause physical harm to a tiny minority.
Young, healthy men particularly will bear the highest risk of myocarditis—an inflammatory process that affects the heart in response to the vaccine and which can be mild, severe, or even life-threatening in the worst cases—while potentially not substantially lowering their risk of a severe Covid-19 outcome (already vanishingly low). A CDC study recently reported that weekly deaths in people aged 18–29 decreased to zero from one in 5 million previously. A recent analysis from the United Kingdom shows the rate of myocarditis from dose three of a Pfizer vaccine is greater than the risk of myocarditis from a SARS-CoV-2 infection for men younger than 40. White House pressure to authorize boosters without adequate safety data was the reason cited by the deputy director and director of the FDA’s vaccines office when they resigned last fall.
It’s impossible to compare the rates of myocarditis after a third dose with reduction in risk of severe Covid-19 from a third dose in college-aged people because no trials or real-world data to date have estimated the latter. New data from a Kaiser Permanente Northwest study, however, put myocarditis risk for men in the 18–24 age range as high as 1 in 1,850 post-second dose of vaccine—a significantly higher rate than Covid-19 hospitalization in this age group or than Covid-19 infection-induced myocarditis.
Given evidence that Omicron causes less severe symptoms in healthy people than previous variants, and that even boosters won’t halt the spread, it is hard to understand why universities are enacting these policies. The rationale that these measures protect the broader community falters, given that most of the risk faced by individuals living in college towns will come from their own decisions to dine out or go to bars, visit family and friends, or travel—not proximally from students. In addition, faculty and staff on these campuses—who are not subject to these same mandates other than vaccination requirements, despite being at significantly higher risk, on average, by dint of their age—are well protected from serious disease by vaccination, and any child over five in their families can now be vaccinated, too.
It seems that university administrators are still overly concerned with keeping down cases—the number of people who test positive for Covid—perhaps to satisfy a small but loud minority of anxious faculty or parents, none of whom has to suffer under these rules. Whatever the motivation, it is not worth the toll these measures take on students’ lives. Case counts are a poor indicator of college students’ health: the vast majority of positive tests in young, healthy, vaccinated adults occur in asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic people. The overweening drive to suppress cases above all else does not create a physically, mentally, or socially healthy campus for anybody.
Lastly, the inconsistency of these policies—that they apply only to students and not faculty—impugns the credibility of institutions of higher education. These schools have claimed as their mission that students leave their gates with critical-thinking skills, yet they are asking students to suspend these same skills and blindly follow illogical rules.
University administrators and their legal advisors should apply the same critical-thinking skills they say they are fostering in students and examine what, exactly, they are accomplishing by imposing remote learning, by allowing students to travel to some states and not others, or by demanding that students wear uncomfortable masks whose effects on Covid transmission have never been tested on living, breathing people in community settings. Perhaps if they did so, they would ditch the majority of these restrictions and let students socialize, eat together, and, most importantly, learn in person in their classrooms.
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