As the rate of vaccination accelerates in the U.S., normalcy seems to be in sight. On April 7, President Biddy Martin announced in a letter to the Amherst community that we can expect “a return to fully in-person teaching and learning for the 2021-2022 academic year.” She also noted that while some of the current safety norms, like mask use, would remain in place on campus, the college was still evaluating whether to make Covid-19 vaccination mandatory for returning students this fall.
Over a dozen colleges including Duke and Cornell have already announced that they will require vaccines for students who will be living on campus, and given the cautious safety measures the college has taken over the course of the pandemic, it is likely that Amherst will follow. While such a mandate could pose a difficulty for some students, the Editorial Board backs a vaccine mandate as a measure of protecting the broader student body, staff and faculty, as well as the nearby town. Even so, we acknowledge that the college may need to keep in place some restrictions or teaching methods from this year in order to best serve every member of the community.
Domestic students should be able to easily comply with such a mandate. As the Biden administration has already announced that all Americans must be eligible by April 19, students living in the U.S. should have many opportunities to receive vaccines before coming back to campus next year.
For international students, obtaining a vaccine is a little trickier. Many experts have already noted the shocking disparity in vaccine availability in Europe and North America compared to the rest of the world. Data from The Economist suggests that much of the world, including nearly all of Africa, will only be vaccinated by early 2023. Moreover, AstraZeneca’s vaccines, approved by the U.K. and several E.U. countries since December 2020, have not been authorized for use by the FDA. This means, for many international students, it will be hard to access a vaccine, especially one approved by the U.S., before arriving on campus.
An on-campus vaccine clinic seems to be the clear solution. On April 21, Martin shared the news that the college will be administering the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine on Wednesday, April 28, with enough doses available for the unvaccinated students on campus. We believe efforts should be made to administer vaccines to students at the beginning of the fall semester as well.
Yet providing on-campus students the opportunity to get vaccinated does not guarantee that all students will take it. Some students have health complications or religious beliefs that make taking the vaccine unfeasible, while others may have personal objections to the vaccine or concerns about its safety. Even so, the college can and should prioritize the bulk of the community and town over the few. But this means the college should plan policies to accommodate the unvaccinated on and off campus rather than struggling to adapt the system to individual cases at the start of the next semester.
Exceptions to the vaccination mandate should be made for medical exemptions like the immunocompromised, who are in more danger themselves and will need extra support if they are to succeed on campus. However, some with medical exemptions may not feel comfortable taking the risk of returning to campus and prefer to study remotely. Those with religious exemptions likewise should be allowed on campus, but may need to take extra precautions to remain safe.
Non-medical and non-religious holdouts should be treated differently, being kept off-campus in order to preserve the safety of the college community and the town of Amherst. Exceptions in these cases would incentivize vaccine hesitancy, which is a risk to us all.
To best serve students off campus however, accommodations should be made. The simplest measure to take would be to continue recording lectures and discussions to post to Moodle for asynchronous or remote viewing. Similarly, depending on the size of the off-campus student body, it may be necessary to continue utilizing Moodle as a space for discussion, so that all members can participate. While most of us agree that in-person learning is immeasurably better than its online alternative, some holdovers from the pandemic are certain to remain if the college hopes to serve its entire community to the best of its ability.
We want to return to a normal semester as soon as possible, but the most important thing is ensuring everyone is safe. This means acknowledging that not everyone will be able to come back to campus, and our goal, as an institution, should be enabling them to have the best education possible regardless of those circumstances.
Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 8; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 7).