At least 32 states have resumed the use of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 vaccine, but Mississippi is not one of them. (Sipa via AP Images)

Hundreds of colleges are requiring COVID vaccines this fall. Can Mississippi?

Last year, DeeDee Baldwin, a history research librarian at Mississippi State University, saw firsthand how her community came together to keep each other safe during the pandemic.

The faculty asked for a classroom mask mandate, the provost made it happen. It seemed to Baldwin like the custodial staff were always on campus. Professors worked with students who missed assignments or couldn’t come to class.

“Everybody from the leadership on down really came together to do their best with a bad situation,” Baldwin said. “I think the last year really showed us the importance of working together and remembering that we live in a society and we depend on each other.”

That is why Baldwin was alarmed when, in late April, she received a notice from the Office of Public Affairs that MSU would be lifting the mask mandate for some indoor locations on campus starting in May. Social distancing requirements would be relaxed by 75%.

In a Facebook group, other faculty at MSU also questioned the logic of relaxing these safety guidelines with Mississippi’s vaccination rate lagging behind the rest of the country and murmurings of rapidly spreading Delta variant. Then one of Baldwin’s colleagues, Andrea Spain, an English professor at MSU, suggested they speak up.

So they did. Along with two colleagues, Baldwin and Spain put together a letter urging the Institutions of Higher Learning to require the COVID-19 vaccine for all students at Mississippi’s eight public universities this fall. Since students comprise the majority of the campus population, they view this as the quickest way to reach herd immunity and ensure that the most vulnerable people in the community are protected.

“We must protect all members of the university community,” the letter reads, “especially those who cannot be vaccinated due to medical conditions and/or are immunocompromised.”

The letter also asks that universities in Mississippi not cease their mask mandates and social distancing until a majority of the campus is vaccinated.

“I keep hearing people say, ‘Oh it’s a personal decision,’” to get vaccinated, Baldwin said, “and I’m like, no it’s not. This affects other people. It’s not just a personal decision; it’s a community decision.”

The letter has been live for over a month, and in that time, nearly 250 faculty, staff, students and community members across the state have signed it. And their requests have taken on new urgency as Mississippi is still the least vaccinated state in the country, with only 31 percent of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19. And the CDC has now warned that Mississippi is one of five states where the Delta variant could have the worst impact.

Yet the universities are still trying to return to normal. In early June, MSU completely relaxed its social distancing requirements and lifted its mask mandate entirely. Some faculty were asked to take signs urging mask-wearing off their office doors. Privately, untenured professors reached out to Spain to express their concern.

“People don’t necessarily feel safe to voice what can seem like an unpopular opinion,” Spain said. “But of course, it’s actually not an unpopular opinion for universities to require vaccinations.”

Spain referred to a tracker maintained by the Chronicle of Higher Education which shows as of press time that 570 campuses in 36 states are requiring the COVID vaccine of at least some students or employees.

“What we’re asking is not radical; institutions do this already,” Spain said. “This is a valid, important position, and many people hold it.”

There appears to be confusion as to whether universities can require students to get the vaccine. In a March faculty senate meeting at MSU, President Mark Keenum was asked if the school planned to require the vaccine.

“We’re gonna promote it as aggressively as we can,” he answered. “As far as the mandate, I had the same question — I talked to our attorneys, and I’ll just read to you what was shared with me from our own internal legal staff.

“Mississippi law and IHL board policies require that students obtain certain vaccinations before attending an IHL institution,” Keenum read, looking down at his notes. “However, this does not currently include the COVID-19 vaccine. So unless the state law or the IHL board policy is amended, we can’t legally force someone to have a vaccine,” he finished.

Keenum reassured the attendees that his office has had “some discussions about this” and that he plans to “have dialogue among IHL institutions, with our commissioner” about a possible mandate.

“But again, the board would have to approve that,” he said. “Or the state could amend these vaccination requirements for a student to be able to enroll in any public university.”

The University of Mississippi has also said it can’t mandate the COVID-19 vaccine until IHL amends its policy to include it, according to a June 25 article in the Daily Journal.

But IHL doesn’t appear to agree. In an email to Mississippi Today, Caron Blanton, the IHL spokesperson, wrote that the board’s policy does not prevent the universities from requiring vaccinations that aren’t expressly included. IHL’s policy, Blanton wrote, “represents the minimum requirements that must be enforced by the universities. Additional requirements are not prohibited.”

The trustees have yet to publicly discuss the possibility of a vaccine requirement, but in the past, the board has been reluctant to implement system-wide mandates in response to the pandemic. Last April, IHL commissioner Alfred Rankins convened a task force “to craft a system-level plan for starting and completing the fall 2020 semester in the safest and most effective way.” In its recommendations issued in May, the task force’s baseline practice for schools was to “strongly encourage wearing face coverings while on campus,” despite the governor’s executive order implementing a state-wide school mask mandate.

Gov. Tate Reeves could issue an executive order mandating students receive the COVID vaccine, but he is unlikely to. And Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, said at a forum in early June that“in college, where you do have an opportunity to get vaccinated and the outcomes are relatively mild for the majority of college folks, it’s hard to really raise the level of necessity to that level. Right now it doesn’t seem to be justified.”

Baldwin and Spain plan to send the letter in mid-July to the IHL board, Reeves, Dobbs and the lieutenant governor and speaker of the house. It will be open to signatures until then.

One of those signatories is Ann Fisher-Wirth, a poet and professor at the University of Mississippi. Until she received the second dose of the COVID vaccine in March, Fisher-Wirth, who is 74 and has rheumatoid arthritis, said she took “all the precautions.”That meant teaching and attending academic conferences over Zoom, no travelling to see her kids, no browsing Square Books or giving poetry readings, and shopping at one store only. For a while she washed her groceries. She always wore a mask.

Now fully vaccinated, Fisher-Wirth taught in-person this summer for the first time since the pandemic began.

“Students do not sit six feet apart from each other,” she said, “They sit closer than that. They sit right next to their friends.”

This week, she finally took a trip to see her children. She has tried to feel optimistic that the end of the pandemic is in sight, but she isn’t sure she can trust her community to come together.

“People always talk a big game, ‘oh we’re one big family,’” Fisher-Wirth said. “But ‘one big family’ means that people look out for each other, and they don’t just think of what they want, they also think of what … would be beneficial for the people around them.”

“I would not like to feel like I have to retire because of this,” she added. “I really enjoy teaching, I love being in the classroom, I love reaching those students, but I am immunocompromised. I’d like to feel protected.”

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

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