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How to Cover the Fight Against COVID-19 on Campus

Tips and story ideas for reporters covering mask and vaccine minefields on campus.

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Universities are a “microcosm” of society, so the same fraught debates happening in society over mask and vaccine mandates are happening on college campuses, too, according to Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick.

Frederick shared this insight during a virtual panel at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 Higher Education Seminar on Oct. 19. Moderated by Francie Diep with The Chronicle of Higher Education, three university officials discussed the legal, political and health care forces at work in the fight against COVID-19 on campus.

The panel also included James Hodge, a law professor at Arizona State University and Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer at the University of Southern California.

Panelists addressed the mounting legal questions over measures meant to combat COVID-19 and the inevitable pushback to those measures. They also gave reporters tips for covering these issues and story ideas. Here are the highlights:

COVID-19 Mitigation Practices to Question and Cover:

  • Resources: Regular testing and other anti-COVID practices are costly and labor-intensive. Many schools suffering from funding or staffing shortages are finding it more difficult to safely offer in-person classes. Frederick said a grant helped make testing possible for Howard University.
  • Communication: Universities should have a surveillance system in place to gain a deep understanding of COVID-19 trends on campus, Van Orman said. And, that data should be made accessible to the public. Schools should be aware of outbreak trends and should be regularly communicating about outbreaks to the community.
  • The legal context: Several state legislatures banned mask and vaccine mandates, limiting affected colleges’ anti-COVID options. Van Orman advised reporters to examine what schools affected by such bans are doing, and whether they are doing the best they can given the legal constraints, such as modeling best practices to students and staff: “If they’re not able to have a vaccine mandate, are they using best practices in terms of increasing vaccine confidence, making the vaccine accessible?”

Consider the Forces at Play When Writing about Vaccine Mandates: 

  • Legal limits: Hodges described a forthcoming legal “battle royale” over vaccine mandates at universities. For example, ASU is grappling with conflicting state and federal rules, he said: While the federal government has required vaccines for employers with government contracts, Arizona’s governor blocked mandates with an executive order. ASU declared it would follow the federal mandate.
  • Equity and historical context: At Howard, a historically Black university, Frederick said a vaccine mandate may be complicated “given some of the history of institutionalized medicine and the African American population.” To combat mistrust of medical institutions, Frederick, who is also a surgeon, said the university tried an education and engagement strategy, answering questions and clearing up myths about the vaccine. Fredrick said he called families in southern states, such as Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. History shows state and federal governments experimented on Black people in places like Alabama and North Carolina.Engaging with families and students led to some epiphanies for Fredrick, he said. “I would say the most impressive engagement I had was a meeting with the women’s volleyball team, where half of them had not been vaccinated,” he explained.” And for the first time, I heard questions about fertility, which I thought were very thoughtful. I recognized that there was an underlying misunderstanding of what RNA was versus DNA, something fundamental.”

Story Ideas on Health and Higher Education

  • What about other vaccines?: Hodge said universities have consistently lagged in requiring vaccinations for students compared with K-12 schools. Reporters may want to look into schools’ enforcement of other vaccine requirements, he said: “We’ve seen preventable outbreaks of a lot of other conditions over the last 25 to 30 years on college campuses repeatedly.” Some of those outbreaks included measles and meningitis, Hodge said.
  • A university’s role in student health: Van Orman suggested reporters examine how the pandemic has reshaped the role of higher education in student health. “I think really understanding our institutions and their role in public health is really important. Because we are anchors in our community.”
  • Mental health support for staff and students: Many universities were already seeing an “unprecedented increase” in mental health conditions in students before the pandemic, Van Orman said. Now that the community is back on campus, she said, it’s more important than ever to ensure a strong culture around wellness at universities. Frederick said institutions should also pay attention and implement concrete support for burnt out employees, who are “extending themselves beyond to try to accommodate for this new circumstance.”