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Are Patchwork College COVID-19 Policies Leaving Students Vulnerable?

A woman wearing a blue surgical mask and navy baseball hat administers a COVID-19 vaccine shot into the arm of a driver, through the driver's side window.
Carrie L. Byington, M.D., University of California Health executive vice president and an infectious disease expert, administering COVID-19 vaccinations at the Petco Park vaccination site in San Diego last spring.
Courtesy UC Health)
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Are Patchwork College COVID Policies Leaving Students Vulnerable?

Hundreds of thousands of Southern California college students who are preparing to return to in-person instruction face a patchwork of COVID-19 policies at different colleges and universities, even as cases increase in the region.

Many campuses are requiring COVID-19 vaccinations to come to campus, but some are not. Many require the testing of unvaccinated people who come to campus. On top of that, some campuses also require testing the vaccinated — but some campuses do not. All of this raises the question as to whether the patchwork policies, combined with the recent rise in case rates, are putting people on campus at risk.

“Campuses do not exist in a vacuum from their communities,” said David Souleles, a former public health director of the Orange County Health Care Agency and current director of the COVID-19 response team at UC Irvine.

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“There are definitely strong opinions out in communities around masking. There are strong opinions around vaccination, and so I think all of that is at play when institutions are trying to do the right thing,” he said.

Campuses do not exist in a vacuum from their communities. There are definitely strong opinions out in communities around masking. There are strong opinions around vaccination, and so I think all of that is at play when institutions are trying to do the right thing.
— David Souleles, director of UC Irvine's COVID-19 response team

California’s two public university systems, the University of California and the California State University, are requiring students and employees who plan to come to campus to be vaccinated.

Private universities such as the University of Southern California, Pepperdine University, and California Lutheran University have implemented similar requirements.

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The University Village area of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
((Photo by Reed Saxon/AP))
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Chapman University, also private, does not have a vaccination requirement. The university’s vaccination protocols and resources section on its web page says:

“The choice to get vaccinated or not is your personal health decision and does not need to be discussed or shared with anyone including supervisors, students and faculty.”

While many universities have mandated COVID-19 vaccines, Chapman's administrators are waiting for full approval of the vaccines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require students and employees to be vaccinated.

The wait has not gone over well with some campus leaders.

“My biggest concern is that something could happen to send us back to remote or hybrid instruction,” said Alison McKenzie, a Chapman University physical therapy professor and former Academic Senate president. “I would like to see us do everything we can possibly to keep everybody healthy and minimize risk and infection spreads."

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My biggest concern is that something could happen to send us back to remote or hybrid instruction. I would like to see us do everything we can possibly to keep everybody healthy and minimize risk and infection spreads.
— Alison McKenzie, Chapman University physical therapy professor, former Academic Senate president

A university spokeswoman said some people on campus are hesitant.

“People have … real fear about getting the vaccination,” said Chapman University spokeswoman Jamie Ceman, but she said the policy would change pending full FDA approval. “We just want to make sure that people can have that peace of mind once we put this mandate in place.”

Ceman said the university has been requiring people who come to campus and are unvaccinated, or have not shared their vaccination status, to submit weekly results of a COVID-19 test. As of this week, that requirement is increasing to twice per week.

She said Chapman’s current policies are not putting students and faculty at risk.

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On the other end of the spectrum is UCLA, which requires that everyone who comes to campus must take a weekly COVID-19 test, even if they’re vaccinated. At other UC campuses, it varies — UC Irvine is still deciding on a testing policy.

In late July, UCLA began weekly COVID-19 testing for all regardless of vaccination status or whether they’d requested exemptions. UCLA administrators said they took this step to stop the spread of the virus based on internal discussions, even if it was not a requirement set forth by the L.A. County Department of Public Health. UC and CSU campuses, while governed by a central office in some regards, maintain a great deal of autonomy on their policies.

This is why UC Irvine, for example, though part of the same system, does not have such a requirement — at least not yet.

“It's definitely an active discussion with our leadership right now, to do asymptomatic testing of vaccinated individuals,” said UC Irvine spokeswoman Sheri Ledbetter.

For the time being, UC Irvine and other campuses are pushing their students and employees to comply with requirements to upload their COVID-19 vaccination records. The UC Irvine deadline is Sept. 6. As of Aug. 9, UC Irvine said 57% of its students and 72% of employees had uploaded their vaccination status.

Health expert Souleles at UCI believes any combination of COVID-19 safety policies helps: vaccination, testing, mask wearing, social distancing, and the other practices that have become familiar more than a year-and-a-half into the pandemic.

He also believes the recent rise in case rates, and the impending arrival of thousands of people onto campuses, may lead some local college administrators to shift course.

“Everybody is watching community transmission levels,” Souleles said. “It may motivate some campuses that have not yet considered vaccine policies to perhaps consider them, and testing policies as well.”

What questions do you have about colleges and universities?
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.