‘A recipe for disaster’: UA students and faculty react to campus return plan

Isabel Hope, Assistant News Editor

The University of Alabama announced a return to pre-pandemic operations for the fall semester on Tuesday, July 20, but some students and faculty members are hesitant to call the new health and safety guidelines a “plan.” 

Social distancing, classroom capacities, reentry testing, sentinel testing and masks — except in clinical settings — are no longer required. Faculty members will not offer remote learning options, and the University will not mandate vaccines.

With one month left until students and faculty arrive on campus, Tuscaloosa County’s COVID-19 case rate has increased 867% in the last two weeks. There were no new cases reported over the Fourth of July weekend, but cases spiked soon after. 

‘I don’t trust my peers’

Keyara Baker, a sophomore majoring in psychology, said the new guidelines are not a real plan when “students are being allowed to do absolutely anything.”

“I actually like the thought of going to college in a normal setting because I never got to experience it,” Baker said. “However, I don’t trust my peers enough to feel comfortable doing so.”

Christopher Harden, a senior majoring in microbiology and Latin, said he is excited for the upcoming semester, but remains cautious of unvaccinated people. 34% of people in Alabama have been fully vaccinated making it the least vaccinated state in the country.

“I’m ready to explore the ‘new normal’ that we were all hoping for this time last year, but I am incredibly worried for those that cannot receive vaccinations,” Harden said. “The folks that aren’t getting vaccinated aren’t only putting themselves at risk; there are children and elderly people as well as immunocompromised individuals to be concerned about.” 

Sean Atchison, a sophomore studying international relations, called the plan “spineless and weak.” He said the University has failed to address the Delta variant, a highly contagious strain of the virus. 

The Delta Variant 

The Delta variant became the dominant strain in the United States in early July. While fully vaccinated people can get infected, it is unlikely to result in serious illness. Unvaccinated people currently account for 99% of deaths from COVID-19. 

“I’m excited about coming back to school, and having no restrictions is truly a good goal,” Atchison said. “However, with the rise of the Delta variant and a lack of a vaccination mandate, it simply is not logical to come back with no restrictions. It seems like once again they’ve had months to prepare for the fall and still have no plan that takes into account the severity of COVID-19.” 

Harden said he takes comfort in evidence that vaccines protect against the Delta variant most of the time but fears another spike, not for himself or those who are vaccinated, but for DCH Regional Medical Center, which was overwhelmed with hospitalized COVID-19 patients last year. 

Last year, DCH Regional Medical Center was over capacity, reporting weekly rates of hospitalizations that were often in the double-digits. Hospitalizations are expected to increase as the Delta variant spreads.

‘A recipe for disaster’

Dianne Bragg, an associate professor in the department of journalism and creative media, said not having restrictions is “ridiculous.”  She blames University leaders and the Alabama state law passed in May, which prohibits the University from requiring COVID-19 vaccines.

“I know there are lots of excuses and reasons that would be given for [not requiring COVID-19 vaccines], but we’ve done immunization records for all kinds of things over the years and suddenly people find it to be too hard,” Bragg said. 

Kris, who requested to be identified by her first name, is the mother of a junior at the University. She said she feels apprehensive and wishes that vaccines were required. She pointed to the University’s requirements of a meningitis and MMR vaccine as positive examples.

“I don’t see the difference between requiring those vaccines and not the coronavirus vaccines except for the fact that the coronavirus vaccine has been turned into a political issue,” she said. “Between the COVID variants surging, the state of Alabama only at 34% vaccinated and students returning full-time to campus, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

Baker said she this semester won’t look very different from last year. 

“No one was really following the guidelines then, and we saw that in the number of cases there were on campus,” she said. “Only now there isn’t much room to accommodate sick students. I would feel more safe if everyone staying on campus were required to be vaccinated, or at the very least, unvaccinated students had to be tested before returning in the fall.”

‘An impossible situation’ 

Since the University can’t mandate vaccines, Bragg suggested sentinel testing, which the University used last year to track the spread of the virus on campus. Sentinel testing is a random sampling of students, faculty and staff to help the University respond to outbreaks on campus. Participation in the program was voluntary for most in the spring.    

Bragg suggested that the program continue since not all students will self-report positive test results. 

“I don’t blame the students to be honest with you,” she said. “They’re young people, and that’s why we have adults to make rules and show them the way. That’s what they need.”

Bragg advocates for a mask mandate on campus and said she wants instructors to have control over masks in their classrooms. The current health and safety plan encourages masks for unvaccinated individuals. Bragg said the inability to distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated students creates “an impossible situation for us in the classroom.” 

Atchison said he believes some students will be pleased by the University’s decision to return to pre-pandemic operations. Colleges throughout the South have announced plans to reopen in the fall with no vaccine requirement, despite the more than 500 campuses requiring immunization.

“With these new guidelines — or more like the lack of guidelines — UA becomes the latest institution to deny the pandemic is still happening,” Atchison said. “It would not be a surprise to see many students begin to take that position.”

‘A false sense of security’ 

As a parent, Kris said she believes masks should be required when social distancing is not possible. Eliminating the mask mandate, she said, lulls students into a false sense of security and creates the illusion that things have returned to normal. 

Bragg said she has been vigilant, and the students in her classes last year were as well. She chose to teach in person last year since age was her only risk factor, but she takes care of her elderly parents in a community retirement home. Her students, she said, were conscientious and wore their masks without complaint. 

Sawyer Knight, a rising sophomore majoring in computer engineering, said he is excited to return to a campus with no restrictions.

“I’m very ready to meet people at school events and have the normal college experience that I couldn’t have last year,” Knight said. I’m fully vaccinated, and now that everyone has the option to be vaccinated, I do not understand the need for regulations.”

Fellow sophomore Atchison said his concern lies with the consequences that the lack of restrictions will have on the surrounding community. He said the University owes it to Tuscaloosa to take precautions that protect their well-being. 

The health and safety plan encourages students, faculty and staff to receive a vaccine and to report their vaccination if they received it at an off-campus site. The University plans to introduce a vaccine incentive program for students, but details have not been released. 

‘What do we expect?’

“A robust, on-campus educational experience is important,” UA System Chancellor Finis St. John said. “Prioritizing the health and safety of our campus communities is also essential. The best way to protect your community and sustain continued on-campus operations is to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.”

The University should place more emphasis on vaccinations and provide more online options, Knight said, but even with the recent spike in cases, he said precautions aren’t necessary. Although he’s concerned about a spike in cases among unvaccinated individuals, he said they wouldn’t follow regulations anyway. 

Knight said he believes most students will return to “pre-COVID” life in August, and the cautious students will be a minority. Bragg said students don’t hold all of the blame for not taking the virus seriously.

“When you’re young, there’s just that kind of attitude of ‘It’s not going to happen to me. I’m going to be okay. If I got it, that’d be fine,’” she said. “I wish the students would take it more seriously, but when they look at adults and leadership not taking it seriously, what do we expect?”