Fully vaccinated college campuses can resume normal life, CDC says

Colleges and universities can host in-person learning at full capacity without requiring masks or physical distancing if all of their students, faculty and staff are fully vaccinated before the fall semester begins, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in new guidance posted online Friday.

Schools that lack a fully vaccinated population face a range of decisions about how to resume campus life this fall, based on federal recommendations that have landed as President Joe Biden’s administration encourages more young people to get a Covid-19 vaccine.

According to the CDC, administrators at partly unvaccinated schools should consider the level of virus transmission in their community and vaccine coverage among students and workers. They are also urged to set up robust virus testing programs that can spot clusters of infection or monitor full-fledged outbreaks.

The health agency’s latest guidance will likely encourage the growing number of institutions that are setting up mandatory vaccination programs for their campuses or considering programs for compulsory shots.

Higher education institutions can also use a portion of billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief aid to pay for on-campus vaccination sites, time off for faculty and staff to be vaccinated, and counseling for those who might be hesitant to get the vaccine, the Education Department noted in a separate operational handbook for colleges published on Friday. That money can also be used for testing and contact tracing efforts, the department reiterated, or to purchase safety equipment.

The CDC’s guidance makes no recommendations on vaccine mandates, but it does encourage schools to provide shots on campus through mass vaccination sites, health centers or temporary clinics.

“[Institutions of higher education] can play a critical role in offering and promoting vaccination to help increase the proportion of students, faculty and staff that are vaccinated to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent interruptions to in-person learning,” the CDC said.

Key background: Rutgers University announced in March that it would require Covid-19 vaccines for all students enrolled in the fall 2021 semester, making New Jersey’s flagship university one of the nation’s first higher education institutions to require proof of vaccination to attend classes on campus.

Hundreds of institutions have enacted similar requirements since then, including elite universities and some prominent state institutions, but those schools still comprise a fraction of the country’s roughly 6,000 colleges and universities.

“In some respects, preparing for fall 2021 may be more complicated than it was for the two previous academic terms,” the American College Health Association noted last week in its own school reopening guidelines, adding that it will be “extremely important” for schools that opt against vaccine requirements to “remain at heightened alert.”

What about large events: Crowded settings are still risky for people who haven’t been fully vaccinated, the CDC said, especially when events gather people of unknown vaccination status from communities where the virus is spreading at substantial to high levels.

The CDC said mixed-status campuses should prioritize in-person instruction over other extracurricular activities, including sports and school events, “to minimize risk of transmission in schools and to protect in-person learning.” Mixed-status campuses could also consider limiting the size of gatherings to help maintain physical distancing, the CDC said.

What about campus housing: The guidance says colleges could consider housing students who are not fully vaccinated in single rooms instead of shared rooms, when feasible.

Schools could also think about establishing cohorts of people who are not fully vaccinated, such as groups of dorm rooms or entire dorm floors, that do not mix with other groups of students to minimize transmission and facilitate contact tracing.

The health agency also said communal spaces such as dining areas, lounges and exercise rooms could remain closed or open only for people who are fully vaccinated.