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Booted from class: Colleges penalize unvaccinated students as Delta surges

After months of coaxing students with thousands of dollars in prizes — everything from gift cards to sports tickets to free parking — colleges are starting to punish the unvaccinated.

The institutions started the summer by waving the prospect of scholarships, laptops, game consoles and more in front to students who got a Covid-19 shot. Now, as millions move back to campus, hundreds of schools are mandating vaccines and penalizing students who resist without a medical or religious reason.

Quinnipiac University students who aren’t vaccinated will be fined up to $200 per week and lose access to the campus’ Wi-Fi until they get the shot. The University of Virginia booted more than 200 unvaccinated people from its rolls before the semester began. And Rutgers University, the first university in the U.S. to mandate vaccination for students, is threatening to disconnect email access and deny campus housing for students who don’t comply. Some colleges used similar tactics last year to get students to follow testing procedures.

The hard mandates, which put colleges on the front line of the nation’s newest culture war, could help decide when the latest resurgence of the virus subsides — and when the next one arrives.

Schools, risking conservative backlash, see the aggressive vaccines policies as a critical component of America’s effort to halt the progress of the virus. The institutions are uniquely situated to deal with the least vaccinated groups: young people.

“The Delta variant has been a game changer, and we need to respond accordingly,” said Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s Covid-19 task force. She noted that schools with immunization requirements have a distinct advantage over schools that have to use incentives to get students vaccinated.

The Delta variant and low vaccination rates have fueled a summer surge of Covid-19 infections in young people, causing some college leaders to worry about needing another online-only semester. The incentives they’ve offered students to line up for a shot have helped boost vaccine rates at some institutions. But in many places, they aren’t enough.

Teens and 20-something adults have some of the lowest vaccination rates among eligible populations, likely making them a larger factor in spreading the virus. About 60 percent of people ages 18-24 have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to about 95 percent of people 65-74, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At The Ohio State University, the current vaccination rate of more than 70 percent was not enough to avoid a mandate. School officials are aiming for close to 90 percent.

“Requiring the vaccine was the right thing to do,” said Benjamin Johnson, a spokesperson for the university. “This isn’t particularly new for us … We have mandated a number of different vaccines for students for years.”

All Ohio State students, faculty and staff must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 15. Students who do not comply and do not have an approved exemption will not be eligible for in-person classes or on-campus housing in the spring, and their email and other electronic resources may be taken by the university.

Some states — such as Florida, Texas and Arizona — have laws banning vaccine mandates, leaving colleges with incentives as their only lever to affect vaccination rates.

In the absence of a mandate and with about 60 percent of students on the main campus vaccinated, Stetson University in Central Florida is relying on incentives to boost vaccination rates.

They’re offering a chance to win a year’s tuition, $1,000 in cash and dozens of other prizes. Once a certain percentage of students are vaccinated, school officials have promised to loosen rules around large gatherings. University leaders keep compiling ideas — now with 70 in a spreadsheet — hoping each one will push more students to get vaccinated.

“Someone said the other day: It’s like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks,” said Lynn Schoenberg, dean of students at Stetson University.

Though far fewer students than officials hoped are vaccinated, Stetson’s incentives have caused more people on campus to report their vaccination status. In the two weeks after the incentives were announced in July, nearly 200 percent more students and employees reported their vaccination status compared to the two weeks before the incentives announcement.

“We thought the ROI was worth it,” Schoenberg said.

The success of incentivizing vaccination is becoming clear in other places, too. In Maryland, the state government invested $1 million in prizes — including $50,000 scholarships — for young people to get vaccinated. Since announcing the prizes in July, Maryland has seen a 15.5 percent increase in vaccination for those ages 12-17, according to the state’s department of health. New York, Oregon, Ohio, Delaware, Colorado, Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Louisiana and Washington have similar programs, with varying levels of success.

“We’re taking this a step at a time,” Maryland Health Secretary Dennis Schrader said in an interview. “We’re trying to get people where they are.”

Even with that success, the University System of Maryland has mandated vaccines.

Students at the University of Maryland, College Park who did not report their vaccination status before the semester began had their course registrations canceled.

“Every step of the way, we’re trying to nudge, and we see results,” Schrader said.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said at a press conference last week that the state giveaways — including millions of dollars and full scholarships — have been successful.

“We were drastically seeing our vaccinations fall, and the rate was precipitous — almost straight down,” Beshear said. “When we announced Shot at a Million, it stabilized.”

The Delaware initiative, which included a full scholarship to any public university in the state, “was very well received,” according to a statement from the department of health, but there isn’t enough data yet to know the full impact on young people. The University of Delaware is requiring students to get the vaccine, threatening to put a hold on the accounts of students who don’t comply without an approved exemption, such as a religious objection.

The vaccine incentives and mandates are helpful, Barkin said, but universities and states should focus on which incentives work best.

Students “feel invincible,” she said. “We know students will respond to their peers and peer pressure, and we know that we can use empathy.”

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