Education

When Universities Are Incapable of Learning

A sign telling students to wear masks on the campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Calif., August 17, 2020. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Campus administrators’ policy is to pretend that COVID vaccines don’t work, and they’re committed to it.

‘Covid-19 Precautions Prompt Backlash on College Campuses” reads an October 16 headline in the Wall Street Journal.

It’s about time. For far too long, college students have been far too submissive in the face of the completely unjustified COVID regulations issued by their university administrations.

This isn’t a matter of vaccine mandates. Over 1,000 colleges have required COVID vaccination for students. Universities already require vaccines against other illnesses, so requiring a COVID vaccine is reasonable. The vaccines work, and, as we have said many times on this website, people should get them. Thankfully, on college campuses, people have gotten them: Many universities now have vaccination rates over 95 percent.

Yet campuses continue to have some of the most stringent COVID restrictions in the country. Here’s an example from the Journal story of what some students are putting up with:

At the University of Southern California, 95% of students are vaccinated but they need proof of a weekly negative Covid-19 test to enter campus. Students must leave classrooms to take a sip of water, rather than just sliding their masks down. Security guards circulate in the library and student union reminding students to cover their noses and mouths with their masks.

These university policies would make sense if masks were nearly perfect at preventing serious cases of COVID and vaccines didn’t make much of a difference. But the exact opposite is true: The justification for mask mandates fades with the availability of effective vaccines, and vaccine mandates make masking superfluous.

In most places, students can go to the grocery store without a mask. They can attend religious services without a mask. They can hang out with their friends off campus without a mask. They can go to restaurants without a mask. They can even attend college football games without a mask. That’s all as it should be, because they’re vaccinated, and the vaccines work.

Yet once they enter a classroom, they must wear a mask or face severe consequences for not doing so. This defies common sense. SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t care about the purpose of the room you are in when deciding whether to infect you. It doesn’t say, “Oh, this is a restaurant; I’m going to back off,” or, “Aha, this is a classroom; I’m going to get you!” A classroom full of vaccinated people is safer than a restaurant with a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, yet masks are required in the former and mostly not worn in the latter.

This state of affairs has persisted for months now, and administrators haven’t seemed to connect the dots. Students are living their off-campus lives largely unmasked, and they aren’t, for the most part, getting COVID. (To repeat: They’re vaccinated, and the vaccines work.) There’s nothing special about classrooms that makes them more susceptible to virus transmission than, say, restaurants or grocery stores. So having the same masking standards as restaurants or grocery stores should yield the same result: an extremely low risk of contracting a serious COVID case. If anything, unmasked classrooms should be much safer than unmasked restaurants or grocery stores, since everyone in classrooms is required to be vaccinated.

What we have here is the mind of the bureaucrat at work: Administrators want to believe that the stringent COVID policies they designed for their schools, rather than the arrival of effective vaccines, deserve credit for achieving the intended result. So the policies persist long past the point when they should have been eased.

How do we know that to be the case? College students never follow the rules they’re given, no matter the context. They do a good enough job of appearing to follow the rules that they don’t get in trouble. They signal approval of the rules when it’s socially advantageous. But when they can get away with it, they generally do whatever the heck they want. And even if they were complying perfectly with the rules while on campus, they wouldn’t be following the rules off campus, because the rules don’t apply there.

University administrators who pat themselves on the back for their schools’ low COVID-case rates are taking credit for work that Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson did. When students take credit for other people’s work, it’s an honor-code violation. When administrators take credit for other people’s work, they face no consequences, and in some cases, it may even help their careers. Other than vaccine mandates, the policies that schools have implemented have had a negligible impact on the coronavirus’s spread, and rather than face up to that reality and return students to some semblance of pre-pandemic normal, administrators are sticking to their guns. What are they waiting for, a 110 percent vaccination rate? A negative number of daily cases?

At some point, the months of evidence should make a difference, but it seems that universities are incapable of learning. Their policy is to pretend the vaccines don’t work, and they’re committed to it. They’re still living in March 2020, when there were no vaccines, and we didn’t understand the mechanism by which COVID spreads. It might once have been reasonable to forgive excess caution in the face of extreme uncertainty, but we’re long past that point. It’s time to end the madness, and let vaccinated students breathe unobstructed.

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