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Q & A: Northeast Ohio Universities' Safety Plans Impacted By Delta Variant

Kent State University is strongly urging all students to wear masks indoors on campus to start the fall semester. [Mary Fecteau / Ideastream Public Media]
Campus of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.

Updated: 5:36 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021

Editor's note: On Wednesday afternoon, after our publication time, Kent State updated its mask policy, now requiring everyone regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask inside all campus buildings. The university says students in their dorm rooms, eating in campus dining facilties or exercising are exempt from the mask mandate. 

As universities prepare for the start of the fall semester, they're monitoring the rise in coronavirus cases. That spike is due to the delta variant. School officials say they're in a "fluid situation" while they're trying to decide what COVID-related safety policies to put in place.  Morning Edition host Amy Eddings spoke with Ideastream Public Media education reporter Jenny Hamel for a roundup of local universities' plans. 

After such a tumultuous year, when many colleges and universities required students to learn remotely, everybody's really excited they're coming back to campus. But now we've got this new spike in coronavirus cases. Are universities and colleges turning to the recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to guide them on what to do? 

Absolutely. And just as a refresher, last week the CDC did issue new guidance, recommending that everyone wear masks in public, indoor spaces in regions where there is “substantial or high transmission.” So, on the heels of that guidance, Kent State University in Portage County, which is currently listed as “substantial” on the CDC transmission map, announced a shift in its mask policy. KSU is now strongly urging all students, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks in the classrooms indoors. 

“We felt that we needed to shift our guidance on this issue and make sure we have a safe start to the semester,” Kent State Associate Provost Manfred van Dulmen said in a press release video. “I want to re-iterate they're not mandatory. Instructors cannot require students to wear them. They can encourage students to wear them. But this is not a requirement.”

Kent State is also really trying to get more students vaccinated and is offering incentives. So, as of this week, vaccinated students at Kent can register to win anything from free tuition to free room and board, a kayaking trip, Apple watches and even Beats headphones. The prizes will be drawn twice weekly, all the way through October 12. 

Meanwhile, the Ohio State University announced on Monday that it will require masks of its students, faculty and staff in all its buildings across all of its campuses. Jenny, we're in a far different place than we were just a few months ago in May, when the recommendation from the CDC and from Governor Mike DeWine was that people who were vaccinated no longer had to wear masks indoors.

Yeah. And that's what universities are contending with, just like we are, a landscape that seems to keep shifting under our feet — COVID case numbers that are starting to grow, making it hard to know how threatening COVID might be in a month from now when a lot of these fall semesters begin. 

For example, a lot of universities still don't have any mask mandates in place. The University of Akron told me their administration is “having a series of internal meetings currently” to determine if they need to make any changes to their current policies. Then you have Oberlin College. Also not mandating masks, as of now, but it has a comparatively small student body with an incredible vaccination rate of over 85 percent. And the fall semester there won't start until October. So they're monitoring the situation over the next few months. Oberlin’s Health Coordinator Katie Gravens said the university has been working closely with Lorain County health officials, and they say vaccinations are really key.

“Because even with the Delta variant, if you're vaccinated, the likelihood of serious illness, hospitalization or death are extremely low,” Gravens told Ideastream Public Media Tuesday. “The number of cases are increasing but not hospitalizations and death. So, they’re not overly concerned yet because of that.”

Speaking of vaccines, there's a new law on the books, Ohio House Bill 244, which bans public universities from mandating vaccines that have not been fully FDA approved. Are there universities that are still moving forward with vaccine mandates? 

Yeah, the private schools like Case Western Reserve University, again, a private university, mandating that anyone who wants to set foot on the campus, as of now, must be vaccinated. That goes for staff, too. Case Western put that vaccine mandate into effect in late July when they were registering their vaccination rate among students at about 70 percent. They did add, though, that medical and religious exemption requests would be considered.

As for public universities, Cleveland State University says it will absolutely abide by HB 244 when it goes into effect on October 13, but their fall semester begins August 23. And, in that time, CSU is mandating that students who live on campus in the dorms are vaccinated. So that's about 1,000 students out of 16,000 students expected to live on campus this fall. And only students, again, who have a medical or religious exemption get out of that mandate.