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Covid-19 Precautions Prompt Backlash On College Campuses

Recent studies have shown that the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines is decreasing, though experts say the shots still work well. WSJ expl...

Recent studies have shown that the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines is decreasing, though experts say the shots still work well. WSJ explains what the numbers mean and why they don’t tell the full story. / Jacob Reynolds.
Life on college campuses is as close to pre-pandemic normalcy as it has been in 18 months, but as the semester progresses with few interruptions, some students are pushing back, calling the mitigation measures schools have imposed an overreach. 

Student complaints include objections to restrictions on their travel on and off campus, increased surveillance and what they consider erosion of civil liberties. Student-led petitions have prompted some schools to drop the use of location-tracking apps and requirements to wear sensors that monitor vital signs.

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At the core of their concerns is a fear that universities are constructing a bureaucracy designed to control a generation just coming of age.  “It feels like the school is blackmailing me, they get all this personal information and in exchange I get an education,” said Dan Smith, a graduate student studying labor history at Wayne State University in Detroit. “It’s the growth of the surveillance state.”

When Covid-19 forced colleges and universities to send millions of students home last year, it hampered their ability to teach and cost them billions of dollars in revenue from room and board and athletic events. This year, in an effort to stay open and safe, about 1,000 schools have mandated vaccines, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Outbreaks are far lower than last year and hospitalizations among students are rare. Only a handful of schools have so far reverted to remote learning.

Around three-quarters of students are in favor of vaccine mandates, according to surveys. University faculty are also broadly supportive of them and have protested at schools where vaccines aren’t required. This fall, what is riling up students are precautions they see as going too far, especially on campuses where vaccination rates are nearly universal.

Protests and petitions have popped up at at least 40 schools pushing back against vaccine and mask mandates. Some are coming from the same groups that complained before the pandemic that their schools are becoming as heavily surveilled as prisons.

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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, said sophomore Marin Ruiz.

“It just feels like overreach,” Ms. Ruiz said. “You wonder, where is all this medical information going? Can professors see it?” Since July, about 1,000 of the 60,000-member USC community have tested positive for Covid-19, said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer of USC Student Health. Of those cases, about three-quarters were symptomatic, and a handful required hospitalization. All medical information collected by the school is protected by privacy laws, she said. Professors aren’t privy to students’ specific medical information.

“We’re in what I think is the messy part of the pandemic. We’re trying to figure out over the next six to nine months, how do we transition to managing this as an endemic disease?” she said. “How do we back off while also still protecting our community, and I don’t think any of us know.”

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Michigan has seen its share of reprisals: Students at Oakland University near Detroit successfully pushed back against a wearable “bio button” designed to monitor heart rate, temperature and respiration, and warn the school if a student was showing signs of Covid-19. At Albion College in Albion, Mich., students petitioned the school to drop an app that monitored their location—on and off campus. Last week, Western Michigan University lost a federal appeal to require student athletes to be vaccinated to play.

Montana State University instituted a policy to place students on probation who have twice been reported by a professor for not wearing a mask. A third complaint results in a semester suspension. A fourth mask offense is grounds for expulsion.

The expansion of video proctoring inside student homes during the pandemic has also prompted a backlash. Millions of college students now take exams online while monitored through their computer camera by an employee of a proctoring company or software designed to detect any movement that could be construed as cheating.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, many universities were already recording students’ faces with video surveillance cameras, tracking their movements with GPS and monitoring their messages on social media and email. Schools also regularly detail students’ study habits through digital textbooks, record when they enter buildings, log their presence in class, the library and even the football game. All of these relatively new tracking technologies are in addition to years-old systems that leverage students’ IDs to monitor how frequently individuals are entering gyms, dorms, and cafeterias.

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Mandates have added an additional level of scrutiny, even for those not on campus. A New Jersey student was barred from taking classes at Rutgers University because he hasn’t been vaccinated, even though he is taking all of his classes online from his home.

A spokeswoman for the school said even if students are registered for remote classes, they are still required to get a vaccine because “they will very likely at some point come to campus.” Rutgers student Sara Razi, the New Jersey chair for Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian organization with chapters at colleges across the country, helped organize two protests against vaccine and mask mandates at Rutgers where she sees “a creeping authoritarianism.”

The vaccination rate among students at the school is about 98%. Recently, Ms. Razi took off her mask in the library to take a sip of coffee and a librarian reprimanded her, she said. “This woman said, ‘You’re violating the mask policy,’” Ms. Razi said. “I told her, ‘What’s the problem, I’m drinking a cup of coffee?’ She said, ‘I don’t care, put it on.’”