As students head back to campus, many Minnesota colleges and universities are requiring students be vaccinated against COVID-19. The vaccines mean an added layer of protection that campuses didn't have last fall.
Just before classes were scheduled to begin, large groups of freshmen roamed the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus, learning the ins and outs of college life from a student guide. They wore badges and, even outdoors, most wore masks.
They come to campus this fall with a requirement to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
"I think it's probably the most simple measure they could take to protect the student body. I mean, other than the mass mandate, vaccines are proven effective,” said Cal Smithberg, a junior from Wisconsin. “They're proven to lower case rates. It seems like it's the least they could do."
Smithberg spent most of last year taking classes online from home. This week, the campus felt almost pre-pandemic.
"I have not been in a room with 100 people in, I guess, over a year, and I've been in a couple this week.”
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Unlike last year, the U’s campus is lively. Sidewalks are packed, and the Coffman Memorial Union hums with activity. The precaution to social distance is suspended.
That's the way a lot of colleges and universities this year aim to be, and having vaccinated students, faculty and staff is part of the landscape.
Students have until Oct. 8 to get vaccinated, unless they have a medical or religious exemption. And like other vaccinations, students must fill out forms that list COVID-19.
According to an email sent by U President Joan Gabel last week, 37 percent of students had reported their vaccination status. Of those, around 98.5 percent said they're fully vaccinated.
The University of St. Thomas in St. Paul mandated COVID vaccinations on Aug. 2. According to the school, almost 78 percent of the St. Thomas community was already vaccinated when the mandate was put into place.
"So far, we've been finding that students that hadn't done in advance as soon as they get here are coming in to have it done," said Karen Lange, vice president of student affairs at St. Thomas. Lange says there have been students who are hesitant and want more information. Students can call a COVID-19 hotline or visit health care staff on campus with questions.
"Our Center for Well-Being staff was pretty busy with questions about 'What are the side effects?' Or, 'I've already had COVID, do I have immunity or not?' And students asking about long-term effects," Lange said.
The state's largest college and university system, Minnesota State, has adopted a less restrictive policy. All students who live on campus or participate in NCAA sports must get vaccinated or agree to weekly tests. Most campuses are requiring masks in all buildings, though some say they'll drop that requirement if local virus transmission rates drop below a certain level.
Axel Kylander, president of LeadMN, which represents students from across Minnesota State's two-year colleges, attends Anoka Ramsey Community College and Metro State University. His group has not taken a position on the mandate.
"Our concern here is that we needed a really robust statewide push for vaccine education at all our colleges and universities sooner than this," Kylander said.
Back at the U, freshman Brian Tran, who has taken classes at the U since 2019 through his high school, says he's excited to get back to a more normalized school year.
"COVID hit me really hard because I don't do that well online. And so I'm hoping that coming back to in-person classes — I can do a lot better,” Tran said.