Kirstyn Katherine Ahuero, a 20-year-old Texas A&M student from Fort Worth, died on Sept. 8 from complications related to Covid-19.
A few days later, about 50 A&M students gathered on campus to read her obituary out loud: she studied biomedical science, volunteered for the National Suicide Hotline, aspired to be a psychiatric nurse and left behind parents, siblings, grandparents and great grandparents. Then, students rallied for stricter protections against Covid-19 on a campus where vaccines are optional and students rarely wear masks in classes, according to three students involved with the protests.
Their protest is one of many taking place on campuses across the country as the political fault line over Covid protocols that has cleaved red and blue states extends to colleges and universities, with some enacting strict virus protections more in line with CDC guidance — and others remaining lax. Thousands of students and educators are pleading with college, state and federal leaders for tighter Covid-19 safety measures in response to campus deaths, widespread outbreaks and growing fears of both.
Some professors in Georgia are refusing to teach under lax Covid-19 rules. Students and faculty at the two largest universities in Mississippi asked the state for tougher measures. From petitions in Utah to “die-in” protests in Iowa, thousands are pushing for stricter rules at their institutions.
“Nobody else has to die,” Neo Koite, who organized the protest after Ahuero’s death and met with campus administrators about Covid-19 safety measures, said in an interview.
Colleges in states like California, Maryland and Virginia have mandated the vaccine, sometimes threatening to take internet access or student housing from the unvaccinated — and occasionally booting them from the rolls altogether. But other states, like Texas, Georgia and Tennessee, have outlawed or discouraged vaccine mandates or universal mask-wearing, both on and off campus. Pleas from campuses for more protections continue to escalate as the semester grinds on, forcing educators and students to amp up their calls for action.
In September, eight chapters of the American Association of University Professors urged Congress to step in, saying they were getting no traction with state and university leaders. Several representatives have agreed to take meetings, and Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.) sent a letter to the Education Department asking if federal grant money can be leveraged to get mandates on college campuses.
“We’re just at a level of frustration that I’ve never seen before,” AAUP president Irene Mulvey said in an interview. “Everyone’s fighting the same battle, and that is for commonsense rules to end the pandemic and keep people safe.”
Mulvey said she couldn’t think of another unified uprising of professors across the country like this since McCarthyism threatened academic freedom in the 1950s.
“The way these governors and legislatures are prohibiting universities from doing the things we know will end the pandemic … It’s like the building is on fire and they’re passing rules saying you’re prohibited from using the fire extinguisher,” she said in an interview.
The AAUP effort may be strongest in Georgia, where the state chapter led a weeklong protest across 19 campuses. Months of faculty, staff and student concerns have led to little change on campuses, and now at least 50 professors in the state say they will defy the ban on mask mandates by requiring students to wear face coverings in class.
“We’re just trying to find ways to shout into the wind at this point,” said Matthew Boedy, the president of Georgia’s AAUP conference and a professor at the University of North Georgia.
“The only lever we had was public attention and mass movement.”
Some professors talked about protecting their children or other more vulnerable family members when pleading with students to wear masks in class, Boedy said. At least four University of Georgia instructors have quit or retired over lax mask-wearing policies — one longtime professor retiring mid-class when a student refused to wear a mask properly.
“The University of Georgia is doing everything within its power to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of our community,” a university spokesperson said in a statement, explaining universities do not have the authority to enact mandates without the approval of the University System of Georgia.
Between conflicting guidance from state legislatures, governors, state college boards and federal health agencies, universities have struggled to create health policies. Some delayed announcing Covid-19 rules while hoping for clearer legal precedent to be set.
“You’re navigating state law issues, you’re navigating federal law issues,” said Michael Baughman, an attorney at Troutman Pepper who represents several universities, many of which do have vaccine and mask mandates. “It certainly ties their hands a bit.”
Litigation from students and staff on the grounds of an unsafe working environment would be difficult to win without a standing policy or safety standard being broken, Baughman said. Still, he said universities that are not facing state laws banning mandates generally can set their own policies.
Even where mask and vaccine mandates are banned, students and faculty are asking for other layers of protection.
Dozens of students at the University of Iowa pretended to die in September to show what could happen without stricter restrictions. They’re asking the university for remote learning options alongside vaccine mandates
At Texas A&M University — where Ahuero was the first student to die from the virus, according to a campus newspaper — students’ highest priority is securing more hybrid and remote classes instead of lecture halls filled with often-unmasked peers, Koite said.
Students also want for better contact tracing, more testing and improved housing for people exposed or infected with Covid-19. The university has reported over 4,000 positive Covid-19 cases so far this semester. A petition for new university Covid-19 policies, launched mid-September, has ballooned online with over 24,000 signatures.
Texas A&M did not respond to requests for comment.
A few protests and petitions have had middling success. Faculty at the University of Minnesota sent a letter to university leaders asking for a vaccine mandate, and days later, the university agreed, contingent on full FDA approval of a vaccine. Full approval was given to the Pfizer vaccine just over a week after the university’s announcement.
Other schools, like the University of Utah, also announced a mandate near the time of full approval and renewed student and faculty demands.
“We figured that if there was any chance of them not implementing a vaccine mandate, it would be because they had either bad data or wrong data about students’ willingness to agree with a vaccine mandate,” said Devon Cantwell, a leader of Unsafe U, a University of Utah student advocacy group. “We figured by showing overwhelming public support from the student body, from staff members, from faculty, that hopefully it would assuage any fears about pushback.”
Unsafe U petitioned for a vaccine mandate, and just days after the Pfizer vaccine received full approval — making a vaccine requirement legal in Utah — the university announced the mandate. University leaders talked with students, faculty, the governor, state lawmakers and Utah education officials before announcing the final policy, Christopher Nelson, assistant vice president for Health Sciences Public Affairs, said in an interview.
Other universities and state leaders have been far less receptive.
Mississippi’s state board of higher education said in August that colleges could mandate Covid-19 vaccines — though none took the opportunity, except in clinical settings. Universities maintained they did not have the authority for a requirement.
Students and faculty continued to push university leaders for a mandate. Mississippi State University’s faculty senate voted in September to support requiring the vaccine, as did the student and faculty senates at the University of Mississippi.
Soon after those votes, the board of higher education voted to ban colleges from requiring the Covid-19 vaccine, a reversal of its policy from just one month before. None of the board members were made available for comment.
Months of advocacy from faculty, staff and students had no apparent effect on policy.
“What does it mean to not acknowledge hundreds of people who have addressed you with these concerns?” said Andrea Spain, a Mississippi State professor who in May sent a letter to university and state officials asking for a vaccine requirement. “It’s demoralizing.”