Higher Ed and COVID-19:  What faculty, students and staff can expect in 2021

2021 has finally arrived! After a tumultuous year, there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel of 2020 and hope for a brighter year ahead. Two COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for use in the US and are rolling out to healthcare workers, first responders, and nursing home residents across the country. But what does this mean for US colleges and universities and their faculty, staff and students in 2021?

Vaccines, masks, and another year of uncertainty for higher education.

Two vaccines – Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna – received emergency use authorization and are being distributed broadly across the country.  The CDC has issued guidelines for vaccine prioritization; however, each state has been given the authority to establish their own plan and priorities for vaccine distribution within their state.  This means that the timing and availability of vaccines for personnel at colleges and universities will vary widely by state.

The first priority of the CDC (1a) is to vaccinate those who are most at risk of death and serious disease and to preserve a functioning society.  With that in mind, the first vaccines are slated for healthcare workers, first responders, and residents of long-term care facilities.

In the second phase of priorities (1b), the CDC recommends expanding the distribution to include people who are 75+ and frontline essential workers, which includes the “educational sector” defined as teachers, support staff and day care workers. Although there is no specific mention of colleges and universities, many states have interpreted that to include higher education.  If states follow the CDC guidelines and include higher education personnel in the second phase, faculty and staff could receive vaccines during the spring semester.  However, college students have not been singled out in the priorities. This means that they would be vaccinated along with the general population when the vaccine becomes widely available.  The estimated timing for this varies widely by source but is generally expected to be late summer or early fall of 2021 if things go according to plan.

Unfortunately, the pace of vaccinations is already varying from the plan.  Although millions of doses of the vaccine have shipped, the US missed the “warp speed” goal of vaccinating 20 million people before the end of 2020, with the actual number of those vaccinated closer to 2 million than 20 million.  Meanwhile, many states are sounding the alarm that they have received far fewer doses than originally expected.

Until the vaccine is widely available, the use of masks, social distancing, and hand washing continue to be the best measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  In fact, health experts are recommending that even those who are vaccinated continue to wear masks.  Masks will improve the efficacy of the vaccine and significantly decrease of the risk of getting sick or spreading the virus until some level of herd immunity is achieved. This could be at the end of 2021 or later depending on the public’s access to and willingness to take the vaccine.

Another variable for the 2021 will be the impact of president-elect Joe Biden’s leadership.   With COVID-19 a top priority, it’s safe to assume to a continued focus on the drive toward vaccinations.  President-elect Biden has also been a champion of masks and has indicated that he may impose additional mask guidelines and, possibly, mandates.

On-line learning, hybrid classes, and social distancing will also continue to be an essential part of the COVID-19 response – at least through summer – along with a continuation of the residential living protocols and modifications that universities with on-campus students have utilized for fall 2020.

Colleges and Universities should prepare for a tumultuous spring semester that looks and feels a lot like this past fall.  If vaccinations continue as planned, the fall 2021 semester may bring more stability – but masks, hand washing, and social distancing will continue to play an essential role in the health and safety of students, faculty and staff throughout the year ahead and likely beyond.

Learn more about CDC/WHO guidelines for face masks.

Read more news on COVID-19.

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