Institutions need autonomy on mask and vaccine mandates

After a year of largely remote instruction, United States school and college classrooms are slated to be nearly completely in person this year, despite rising levels of coronavirus cases due to the Delta variant.

An additional year of fully remote instruction seems unimaginable following what was dubbed a ‘lost year’ academically, setting the country’s most disadvantaged students back and leading to plummeting college and university enrolments.

Amid this return to in-person learning and the widespread availability of vaccines, administrators are hoping that international student enrolment will rebound after a 20% drop during the pandemic and billions of dollars lost in tuition fees.

But with these hopes come a number of caveats that are largely out of administrators’ control, the primary source of which arises from a now-familiar American impulse: ideological partisanship.

The vaccine mandate divide

The response to the pandemic – organized in large part by state governments – has fallen along partisan lines since its outset. Republican-led governments have favored keeping businesses open at the expense of public health, while Democratic states have preferred to curb economic activity to attempt to limit the spread of COVID.

The most recent iteration of this difference in policy has now taken shape with the advent of widespread vaccine eligibility. Liberal governments in states like California and New York, as well as federal agencies under President Joe Biden, are implementing broad vaccine requirements for workers and students. Conservative states, meanwhile, are often taking the opposite approach, outlawing both vaccine and mask mandates for workers or students.

What remains to be seen is how these differences in policy will affect enrolment of international students, among other factors, such as the significant delays that students have faced in securing American study visas, in particular in getting embassy or consulate interviews.

After all, states and institutions do not exist in a vacuum; other institutions where vaccines are required may be more appealing to international students.

Collectively, out of the top 10 states for receiving international students, six of them have either not set a state-wide vaccine policy for higher education institutions or have banned a vaccine mandate entirely. In the 2019-20 academic year, these six states received over 268,000 international students – just under one-fourth of all international students in the US that year.

Of course, at this stage, any such walk-back of policy is exceedingly unlikely. But lives are at stake in multiple respects; it is time for politicians to stop playing politics on this issue and allow institutions to set policy on their own campuses.