Kansas universities preserve hopes of a normal fall. Vaccination levels may decide as delta variant cases spike.

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Sophie Kunin, a rising senior at the University of Kansas, has launched a petition in a bid to get the school to require vaccinations or mask-wearing for unvaccinated individuals when classes start next month.

When Sophie Kunin launched her push to get the University of Kansas to beef up its COVID-19 mitigation requirements ahead of the fall semester, the notion that she would be met with friction wasn't a surprise.

The pandemic has divided Kansas communities and her request the school mandate vaccines for its students was likely to spark a knee-jerk response at a time when public officials are split on how to move forward with the pandemic.

But what Kunin, a rising senior at KU, didn't expect was that much of the pushback would come from her fellow students.

"I'm receiving the most backlash from students, a lot of not very nice language," Kunin said. "I'm getting direct messages on my social media accounts ... I'm told (expletive) you.' I'm told, 'If you're scared, stay inside.'"

More:How bad is the new delta-fueled COVID-19 surge in Kansas? Here's what the numbers show.

Roughly 1,000 individuals have signed onto her petition requesting KU either mandate students get the vaccine or require unvaccinated that individuals wear a mask. The university has said it can't take that step due to state law — something Kunin vigorously disputes, arguing administrators could find a workaround if they tried.

"I know that they are considering the backlash that they will receive," she said. "However, they need to think about the students and the faculty and staff that they have there now. Are they considering their lives? No, they're not considering their lives because they aren't trying to protect them. I'm going into class and there are no safety precautions for me."

For months, the state's public universities have been pledging a return to normalcy in the fall — or at least a shift back to a campus experience that resembles the fall of 2019 more than 2020's chaotic, largely remote school year.

Political pressure on the schools has been high, with legislators publicly contemplating a requirement that universities refund students for classes they took online. Higher education leaders have been pressed on their plans for 2021 by lawmakers, with an eye towards a return to normalcy and in-person programming.

But the rise of the delta variant has prompted concern in Kansas, particularly with students moving into dorms in a matter of weeks and classes set to begin shortly thereafter.

For university leaders, students and faculty alike, it begs the question: Is a return to normalcy still achievable?

"All of our plans currently, right now, is for fall semester, that's going to be a more traditional in person academic experience," said Thomas Lane, vice president for student life at Kansas State. "But as at the start of this conversation, the virus gets a vote."

Universities aim to increase vaccine uptake for younger Kansans

Universities, much like other institutions, are pinning their hopes on the COVID-19 vaccine.

But young people age 18-24 are one of the groups least likely to have received a vaccine in Kansas, with about 41% of that population getting at least one shot, according to federal data.

In a survey of the state's public four-year universities, all institutions except for Emporia State responded with an outline of their COVID-19 mitigation plans for fall.

Of those schools, only Kansas State said they had an estimate of how many students were currently vaccinated. Other universities, including KU, said they were planning on collecting that information in the coming weeks.

At KSU, Lane said 80% of students had been vaccinated, based on information voluntarily uploaded to the university's student health portal, as well as data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's vaccine database.

"We're just going to continue to send the message out that getting vaccinated is the best way to beat this virus and provide us the best chance to have the academic year that we all desire," Lane said.

Universities have pledged vaccine incentive programs but most are still weighing what those efforts will look like, as officials debate what might prompt students — who had every opportunity to get vaccinated over the summer but did not — to take the plunge.

Gov. Laura Kelly's administration has proposed a vaccine lottery program targeted squarely at younger Kansans, with college scholarships as the potential reward.

Republican legislators, who are partly charged with disbursing the federal COVID-19 relief that would bankroll the lottery, have balked, however, and the plan hasn't yet moved forward.

More:How does the new CDC mask guidance affect Kansas? For 80% of us, it's time to mask up.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said he had concerns about "bribing people to take the vaccine." There is also conflicting data about whether vaccine incentives have moved the needle on getting individuals, particularly younger residents, to take the plunge.

And for campuses embedded in communities struggling with the pandemic, a lack of vaccine uptake in the surrounding areas could spell trouble, even if many students are immunized.

At Wichita State, the most urban of the state's public universities, surrounding Sedgwick County has the most COVID-19 variant cases in Kansas — and only a 45.5% vaccination rate.

"Specific WSU data doesn't really tell our story," said Camille Childers, director of student health at Wichita State University. "Our story is more of what's going on in Sedgwick County."

Eric Grospitch, vice president for student life at Washburn University, the administrator who has largely coordinated the school's COVID-19 response. Washburn won't require the vaccine, although students in on-campus housing will have to be immunized or provide a negative test upon move-in.

No plans to mandate vaccines at Kansas colleges

Hundreds of schools nationally will require the vaccine — but no institution in Kansas, public or private, appears to be intent on adding their name to the list.

Officials at several Regents universities, including KU, pointed to language approved in the state budget last year banning public funds from being used to require proof of vaccination.

Kunin suggested current law would still allow the university to get around this by requiring either vaccination or mask wearing if a person hasn't been immunized.

A federal judge in Indiana recently upheld the Indiana University-Bloomington's requirement that students be vaccinated, despite a similar ban on vaccine passports approved by state lawmakers.

"It is the right thing to do," she said.

But officials at other schools questioned whether a vaccine requirement would even work effectively, noting they would rather focus on educating students on the merits of being vaccinated.

"I guess I've grown up in Kansas, and I know that I don't like being told what to do," Eric Grospitch, vice president for student life at Washburn University. "Do I think there's places for (requirements), sure. I just don't know that that fits us." 

Universities make, alter plans with eye toward delta variant

The delta variant has prompted some changes already to university plans.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rolled out new guidelines for areas with high virus transmission Tuesday, including the counties housing all of the state's Regents universities, as well as Washburn University.

Wichita State and Kansas State have said they will interpret a requirement that masks must be worn in state buildings to include their campus, although they are "still awaiting final confirmation" from Gov. Laura Kelly's office. KU and Washburn said before Kelly's announcement that they would recommend mask-wearing indoors but have made any updates.

Most public universities are requiring students living in the dorms be vaccinated or demonstrate they have tested negative for the virus before moving in. None have indicated an ongoing requirement that unvaccinated students test regularly, something the University of Wisconsin-Madison and other schools are aiming to implement.

Meanwhile, Kansas and Kansas State are preparing for capacity at or near 100% for football games in the fall, although a KU spokesperson said health officials were "prepared to modify its recommendations as needed."

A sign from last fall notifies visitors of the mask-wearing requirement at the University of Kansas' Memorial Union. The university has said it will recommend students wear masks indoors to start the fall semester but won't mandate it.

And move in and orientation events are set to be spaced out over a longer period of time and will likely involve more outdoor events than usual but the plan is for them to occur in-person.

Washburn, for instance, is spreading its welcome week events over the course of several months — in part to minimize the virus risk but also in acknowledgement that it has, in effect, two grades worth of students who have not had the traditional first-year experience.

But there is also the thornier question of what options are available to students who don't feel comfortable cramming into a crowded lecture hall where classmates may not be masked or vaccinated.

All schools are still banking on a return to in-person instruction, though some, such as Fort Hays State in western Kansas, have robust online learning programs they ran pre-COVID-19 that could be an asset for hesitant students.

Most officials agreed it would be a relatively easy accommodation to help students who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons stay safe.

For others who are on edge about returning to the classroom, things are likely to be handled on a case-by-case basis, though some students are pressing for more flexibility.

"You're speaking specifically of accommodation to a student who may have a true health issue — we can work through those," Grospitch said. "The 'I don't know how I feel' is a much harder one for us to manage."

‘This is something that affects literally everyone’

The full return to campus in 2021 means a return to the things that define college: the football games and fraternity parties, the time spent cramming for exams and falling in love, the emotions and traditions in Lawrence, Manhattan or Pittsburg that were otherwise unavailable to students from their living room.

Given how much students drive campus life, university officials acknowledge that they have to cede some of the messaging to their 18- to 22-year-old population to ensure buy-in.

"Washburn's motto is 'Not for ourselves alone,'" Grospitch said. "So it really was about making decisions that affected yourself, but also the community. And so our students led those conversations."

But Kunin noted she has been "frozen out" by her counterparts on KU's student senate, saying they have been leery of addressing the topic head on for fear of being voted out.

She warned her fellow students against playing down the risk of the variant, even as younger individuals wind up in hospital beds throughout Kansas and Missouri.

More:Is COVID-19 surge mostly hurting counties with low vaccination? Here’s what the data says.

"Students were like: 'We're in our 20s. We don't need to worry about any of that,'" Kunin said. "But they aren't considering everyone else around them. What about your grandma you go home to? What about your aunts and uncles that fly in town that have children? You know, it is about everyone. This is something that affects literally everyone."

There is hope the chaos that reigned during 2020 is a thing of the past, even with cases on the rise. Disgruntled parents, students and state legislators have called into question the decisions made by state universities last year, although officials have defended their actions as doing the best with rapidly evolving information.

But despite the realities of a virus that is as political as ever, campus health officials say they genuinely believe there is a difference between this year's back-to-school when compared with 365 days ago.

"We're definitely in a better place than we were a year ago," said Childers, of Wichita State University. "We know more. We have a vaccine. We have a better understanding of this virus. And we have the tools to control it."