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Higher ed leaders discuss keeping students safe as COVID-19 surges

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As omicron cases surge throughout college campuses, higher education leaders grappled with ways to keep students safe, including implementing vaccine mandates, during the Hunt Institute’s Jan. 13 webinar titled “Postsecondary Pathways: Vaccine mandates – Will they stick?”

Panelists Dr. Chelsea Doub, learning designer at McKinsey & Company; Melissa J. Holloway, vice chancellor and general counsel at North Carolina A&T University; and Dr. Aaron Thompson, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, discussed appropriate ways to motivate students to not only make the best decisions to protect themselves, but also to protect those around them. 

According to Doub, students’ decisions to get vaccinated are influenced by their perception of source credibility, rapid behavioral changes, and their own dignity. Information about COVID-19 is often difficult to understand, which can leave students unsure of what or whom to trust.

Doub admitted that source credibility has been especially difficult to determine in the age of COVID-19, stating, “What we really have to understand and be patient with throughout this process is that it can be confusing because we’re getting different messages every day from different sources, sources that we were previously very confident in and then sources now that many of us have lost confidence in.”

Dr. Chelsea Doub during panel discussion. Alessandra Quattrocchi/EducationNC

Doub went on to say that because vaccine mandates require behavioral changes, communities of color have been hesitant in their decision to get vaccinated due to centuries of mistreatment by our nation’s public health institutions. Considering this history, Doub emphasized the importance of individual dignity to the COVID-19 mitigation strategies implemented in higher education. 

“What dignity means in this moment, as we think about equity issues that persist through higher education with many marginalized populations and a number of different facets of diversity, really comes back to this central idea of enabling people to feel like they are experiencing dignity as a means of belonging,” said Doub. 

Panelists Holloway and Thompson also acknowledged mistrust of the vaccine among their students. Both agreed that when higher education institutions focus on dignity and autonomy in decision-making, students feel respected. However, they also noted how dignity may conflict with the commitment their respective higher education institutions have to equitable education and student safety. 

Thompson said that resolving this conflict was especially difficult in rural community colleges in Kentucky.

“We had far more of an issue convincing folks that vaccines were important to keep them safe and keep their fellow students safe,” said Thompson. Because of this, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education made the intentional decision not to mandate vaccines, focusing instead on other ways to keep students safe. 

At North Carolina A&T University, Holloway noticed that the local community was skeptical about the vaccine.

“Our campus sits right in the middle of East Greensboro, which is a large community of color where there was some mistrust as it relates to the vaccine,” said Holloway.

As part of the UNC system, North Carolina A&T University was not subject to a vaccine mandate. However, students are still heavily encouraged to get vaccinated and boosted to prevent serious infection from COVID-19.

Melissa J. Holloway during panel discussion. Alessandra Quattrocchi/EducationNC

So how have Holloway and Thompson managed to keep their students safe without mandating vaccines?

Both leaders emphasized the importance of enforcing regular testing for non-vaccinated students and relying on cultural competency to construct COVID-19-conscious messaging that resonates with the local community. 

A&T has been offering easily accessible rapid testing to prevent an emergency transition to online learning, something other UNC System schools have had to do.

“From an equity standpoint, for us, it was important to ensure that our students were able to continue their education here on campus,” said Holloway. “We’ve had as much success as many of the public institutions that have mandated the vaccine, and I think we will continue to do so.”

For Holloway and Thompson, success in their COVID-19 mitigation strategies was bolstered by a commitment to understanding and appealing to the local community. Thompson knew early on that promoting COVID-safe behaviors would require a stronger effort for community colleges in rural Kentucky, so he adapted his approach to meet students’ needs.

“We had to get on our feet to communicate. It was far more mouth-to-mouth, word-to-word, and localized in the way that it was done. It was focusing truly on the culture and the behavioral patterns of that community, and talking about them in the language and communication that was appropriate to that community,” said Thompson. 

Thompson also recognized the importance of respecting dignity in his communication strategy stating, “Let’s not talk at them,” he said, “but let’s talk with them to help design a system that’s continuously improved.”

The community-conscious approaches discussed by the panelists demonstrate that vaccine mandates are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Importantly, though, these panelists affirmed that even without a vaccine mandate, higher education leaders can still uphold their commitment to community wellbeing while respecting students’ dignity. Though it is unclear if vaccine mandates will stick for higher education institutions that have chosen to impose them, for those that have not, community-wide protection is still within reach.

Alessandra Quattrocchi

Alessandra Quattrocchi is an executive fellow at EducationNC.