International students face confusion around vaccine mandates

Some 662 universities and colleges, as identified by The Chronicle of Higher Education, are requiring students or staff to be vaccinated before they return to campus. However, which vaccine they will accept differs by institution. 

“If you look at this, in the absence of a national policy around vaccines, it’s left up to individual institutions”

There is currently no federal mandate around vaccinations which means that institutions are coming up with their own policies around which vaccines they will accept before a student is allowed on campus. 

Many institutions are only accepting FDA or WHO approved vaccines. However data shows that some countries are offering their population vaccines that are not on either of these lists. Students from these countries are likely to have to quarantine and get additional vaccinations before returning to campus. 

“This showcases the hidden barriers that are in place for many students. And we saw a dramatic decline in enrolment in colleges and universities, especially amongst international students,” Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities told The PIE News.  

“If you look at this, in the absence of a national policy around vaccines, it’s left up to individual institutions…

“Students will have to be in residence halls and engage in remote learning and get the approved vaccines. So it takes a toll. Not just an economic toll, but a psychic toll, the reduction of cognitive bandwidth when we’re stressed about fitting in and feeling a sense of welcome and belonging. 

“All of these issues should be at the forefront of the minds of those who are concerned about student success at a time when we’re seeing a growing economic and racial segregation in higher education,” she added. 

In addition to this, differing state-level restrictions also paint a confusing picture around vaccination mandates. 

A number of states have restricted the ability of colleges and other organisations to ban vaccination requirements and restrict the use of Covid-19 mitigation strategies such as the mandatory wearing of masks. 

While this means that public institutions in states such as Florida and South Carolina will not be able to mandate vaccinations, private institutions will be able to. 

“Because we don’t have a federal mandate and because states are passing their own legislation, it really is very confusing for the international student and comes down to the individual institution,” Sarah Spreitzer, director, government relations at the American Council on Education, told The PIE. 

Proper communication between students and institutions will be essential, according to Pasquerella. 

“It is absolutely incumbent upon colleges and universities to be transparent and to communicate as much as possible about the changing guidelines, taking into account the latest state mandates, the recommendations from the CDC and their own institutional policies and practices,” she said. 

Higher education stakeholders are also fearful that such state-level restrictions could risk serious outbreaks on campuses – especially given the transmission of the Delta variant. 

In a joint statement, US HE organisations claimed that state actions that prevent the use of “established and effective” public health tools at the same time as Covid-19 cases increase is a “recipe for disaster”. 

“Colleges and universities have nearly 18 months of hard-won experience in responding to the pandemic and preventing and containing the spread of the virus on campus and in their surrounding communities,” the HE organisations said.

“Continued success will require having all effective public health strategies at their disposal to curtail the Delta variant and prevent a surge in Covid-19 illnesses, hospitalisations, and deaths this fall.” 

“I fear with the Delta variant that institutions will be shut down again”

They argued that restrictions undermine the ability of all organisations, including colleges and universities, to operate safely and fully at a time of tremendous unpredictability. 

“Furthermore, these restrictions prohibit higher education institutions from taking responsible and reasonable public health measures and ultimately threaten the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and neighbouring communities,” they said. 

Pasquerella echoed concerns around communities being affected as well as those on campus. 

“Students don’t just stay in this bubble of higher education. They go out into the communities. Think of the state of Florida where so many people in the state are elderly and most at risk. We hope that they’ve all been vaccinated. But we know that they haven’t because of vaccine hesitancy and for political reasons. 

“And so we’re seeing a surge of cases and reports every day that the hospitals are full, that people are being turned away, dying in ambulances because there’s no room at any of the hospitals,” she said. 

“I worry about what will happen in the fall, even if we’re able to get up and running in the next few weeks for the start of the fall semester. I fear with the Delta variant that institutions will be shut down again,” she added. 

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