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After Kansas’ K-12 vaccine rollout, some college faculty could be prioritized — at counties’ discretion

Rafael Garcia
Topeka Capital-Journal

More than six months into the 2020-2021 academic year, Washburn University professor Joseph Mastrosimone still has hardly been back to his campus office, let alone a classroom.

It isn't a risk that Mastrosimone, a labor law professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the university’s School of Law, is willing to take, especially as the No. 2 for the school. It has meant that Mastrosimone’s workload has essentially doubled by choosing to teach remote classes exclusively.

“It’s substantially harder,” Mastrosimone said. “This is a class I’ve taught for years, and I’ve practiced at the National Labor Relations Board — I’m confident in saying I’m an expert, and even with that, in a normal year where I might’ve taken an hour or two to prep, that’s now doubled.”

Between that much more prep work and the challenge of making legal concepts stick in law students’ minds via PowerPoint instead of face-to-face instruction, Mastrosimone said that contrary to some lawmakers’ suggestions, higher education has been working, even to the point of exhaustion, to make sure students are still getting educational value for their tuition dollars. Still, he conceded that the whole academic process would be easier if he could speak to his students face to face.

But he won’t consider returning to campus until he has been vaccinated.

As Kansas ramps up vaccinations and prioritizes K-12 teachers as part of Gov. Laura Kelly’s promise to fully reopen schools, state higher education workers will start receiving vaccinations, after the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Tuesday revised its guidance to include some college and university workers.

Still, the change in guidance isn't a blanket prioritization of higher education. The guidance stipulates that vaccinations only go to university workers who belong to an existing phase two vaccine prioritization category — critical workers who must necessarily work in close in-person contact with a large number of people.

Additionally, while the state definition of those kinds of critical workers has now been clarified to include some higher education staff, it will still be up to local health departments to prioritize individual categories within Phase 2, with older individuals and all K-12 staff still receiving priority under the guidance.

More:College students taking online classes in Kansas could get a refund. The total cost is unknown.

Washburn University students and staff walk through Memorial Union on Tuesday afternoon. Under clarified guidance from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, some of Kansas' higher education staff — but not yet students — who are also critical workers who must necessarily work in-person could begin receiving the COVID-19 vaccine at the discretion of county health departments.

Colleges not in a separate category in the state's vaccination plan

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national recommendations have included higher education side-by-side with K-12 educators and staff, but states — like other COVID-19 mitigation measures — have been free to craft their own plans using the CDC recommendations as guidance.

In a presentation to the Kansas House Social Services Budget Committee on Monday, KDHE Secretary Lee Norman said the state’s decision to not specifically include higher education in the state’s plan came down to a question of proximity. He compared the chances of a preschool teacher coming into close contact with his or her students, versus the same chances faced by a college professor.

“A college professor is less likely to be exposed to droplets, shared surfaces and common objects, where a preschool teacher is highly likely,” Norman said. “Kids are sneezing and wiping their noses on their sleeves and everything all the time. You can’t control that. You can try.”

And last week, Kelly told reporters that while higher education wasn't explicitly included in the state’s vaccination plan, county health departments may utilize discretion in implicitly classifying certain higher education staff as critical, high-contact employees, who are included as a category in Phase 2 of the state’s vaccine rollout.

She gave an example of a professor who might have to come onto campus to teach a necessarily in-person laboratory class.

“We’re going to leave it like that,” Kelly said. “I think it made sense to (not included higher education as a category) because the needs are very different on campuses. Those are entire communities in and of themselves. A blanket eligibility doesn’t make sense in that situation.”

More:Can schools require teachers to get the COVID-19 vaccine? Probably, but most aren't – yet.

Colleges frustrated, waiting for guidance for vaccinating staff   

Kansas’ change to clarify that some higher education workers are eligible comes after weeks of higher education administrators and faculty expressing “frustration” with the fact the state’s plan has not specifically included higher education as its own category.

In a weekly message to the University of Kansas community last week, Chancellor Doug Girod said he and other university administrators had felt frustrated that efforts to prioritize faculty and staff, especially those who have had to work in-person, had not had great traction with state health officials.

After KDHE’s update to its guidance, Girod said the university would promptly work with local health departments across its multi-county system to get staff vaccinated, although timelines could vary given different counties’ interpretation of KDHE guidance.

“As you know, we have been advocating for our employees to receive vaccine priority with policymakers in Topeka and local health officials since this process began,” Girod wrote to the campus community Tuesday. “We are pleased that this new guidance is a step toward including more university employees in earlier priority groups, and we’ll continue our advocacy efforts to include as many of our employees in future vaccination efforts as soon as possible.”

Similarly, at Kansas State University, officials have been waiting for guidance on how and when the university might start receiving vaccinations, especially since the university’s Lafene Health Center is equipped with the specialized freezers needed to keep vaccines under the extremely cold temperatures needed for them to work.

K-State’s health center is slated to start receiving some vaccines later this week from the Riley County Health Department’s allocation, county public health information officer Alice Massimi said, but those vaccines will be subject to K-State agreeing not to vaccinate anyone not listed as a priority under state and county guidance. K-State, however, may otherwise vaccinate its staff and faculty as it sees fit under those constraints, Massimi said.

Sue Peterson, K-State’s legislative liaison, said vaccines for higher education would do the same thing they would do for the general public in that they could be the path to some semblance of normalcy, especially as the university prepares for the 2021-2022 school year.

More classes could be held in person, and those classes themselves might not have to be artificially capped any longer to ensure social distancing, Peterson said. At the very least, vaccines for higher education would likely make moot any legislators’ concerns and proposed bills that would require universities to issue refunds for classes moved online or cut short by COVID-19, since remote classes would no longer be necessary.

Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat and former school superintendent whose district encompasses K-State, said he understood the need to prioritize K-12 educators ahead of other groups.

But he emphasized that he saw higher education as being just as essential, especially if the state plans on developing any kind of herd immunity from vaccinations. He said he could only speak to his opinion, as even as a legislator, he doesn't hold any additional sway or influence over the state’s vaccine priority plan.

“I see higher ed as being in the same category (as K-12), certainly for key staff who might have a need to be in close contact or in-person situations,” Hawk said. “To me, it’s the same benefit in terms of getting to herd immunity and making sure we have a large number of people vaccinated — making sure we can operate in a more normal fashion, just like we want to do in K-12.”

Future of in-person learning is still unclear 

One key difference between K-12 and higher education is that to properly make campuses safe for more fully in-person learning, students would need to be vaccinated as well.

That hasn't been a consideration for K-12, since the Federal Drug Administration hasn't yet cleared any vaccine for use in children. In an interview with ProPublica earlier in February, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci said clinical trials are starting on vaccines for children, and some students as young as first grade could feasibly have been vaccinated by the time the 2021-2022 school year starts in September.

Even with KDHE’s updated guidance on vaccines for critical higher education workers, students and other staff who don't yet fit into any listed category are not slated for vaccine prioritization.

Especially as Kansas’ state universities look to rebound after a difficult year for operations, university presidents are looking to more widespread in-person learning as a key to boosting both enrollment and tuition revenue.

More:Under pressure, Kansas Regents commit Gov. Laura Kelly’s extra $10.3M to deferred maintenance over employee raises

K-State president Richard Myers previously told the Kansas Board of Regents that he and other state university administrators are hopeful for a return to a more normal situation in the fall, although the path to that is not yet totally clear.

"COVID-19 is going to keep this a dicey game, but we're willing to play that game and we're handling things the very best we can," he said.

At Washburn University, existing COVID-19 mitigation measures have been largely successful at curbing the spread of the virus on campus, spokesperson Pat Early said. Still, being able to vaccinate more staff and faculty against the virus would go a long way to providing protection and confidence for a fuller return to in-person learning, Early said.

So far, only older faculty and some instructors who provide teach dual enrollment classes to Shawnee County high schoolers have received a vaccine, he said.

For Mastrosimone, the Washburn Law professor, the thought of returning to some semblance of normal in the fall is what has been getting him through this school year, he said.

“But that has to be premised that between now and the fall, there’s a premium placed between faculty and staff on college campuses being inoculated,” Mastrosimone said. “But then you really have to think about students, and how you’ll get them as part of the plan.”

Still, he said the state’s plan for higher education vaccinations isn't very clear, and it has caused confusion between local departments, which attempt to defer to KDHE’s guidance while KDHE officials point to counties’ latitude to prioritize groups within each phase.

“It’s like a kid playing off of two parents,” Mastrosimone said. “Both parents say go talk to the other, and no one is willing to make that decision.

“There are no good decisions. I tell this to my students, to faculty and to my kids — we’re beyond the point of good choices on this, and everything is the least bad choice, and I think all we’re asking is to be part of the discussion on what the choices are for higher ed.”