As college students flock back to Nashville’s campuses for another year of learning in a pandemic, they will return to more COVID-19 protocols and guidelines.
Both public and private higher-education institutions have varying degrees of COVID-19 rules that are determined by different boards and presidents. Some schools have stricter guidelines than others, but there doesn’t seem to be significant patterns or uniformity in the schools’ approaches. All of these protocols can and likely will change, of course, as COVID-19 cases increase or decrease over the course of the school year, and as the schools see fit.
Right now, universal masking is required at most universities, including Lipscomb, Belmont, Tennessee State University, Trevecca Nazarene and Vanderbilt. Lipscomb and Vanderbilt have both stated that their mask mandates are temporary, while other universities’ remain indefinite. Vanderbilt doesn’t list an end date to its mask mandate, but Lipscomb’s is projected to be in effect until Sept. 3. According to Lipscomb spokesperson Kim Chaudoin, that may change depending on university and city case counts. Lipscomb plans to rely on its medical faculty to track cases on a week-by-week basis to make necessary decisions. “This year we know we need to be kind of flexible,” Chaudoin says, “just because the situation continues to change.”
“The situation is dynamic and changing,” Vanderbilt spokesperson Melinda Rogers tells the Scene via email, “and we will update information as we can to the site.”
Fisk and Vanderbilt are requiring vaccinations for both students and staff, though religious and medical exemptions are allowed. Even with their vaccine mandates, both universities are still requiring masks. Fisk is requiring masks throughout all of its buildings, and Vanderbilt is requiring them in common areas, though they don’t need to be worn in dorms, classrooms or offices where people can remain six feet apart.
Two universities are incentivizing students to get vaccinated. Trevecca Nazarene will offer $20 of its campus currency, “Boone bucks,” to students who prove they’ve received the vaccine by Oct. 1. TSU will offer $100 Mastercard or Visa gift cards to vaccinated students, and another $50 in gift cards to vaccinated students living on campus.
Some colleges seem to be struggling to establish consistent rules. On July 30, Nashville State Community College stated that it will require masks, but on Aug. 18, that guideline changed to say that masks are no longer required, but preferred, despite a rising number of local COVID-19 cases. The Scene connected with the Tennessee Board of Regents — the governing body of NSCC and Nashville's Tennessee College of Applied Technology as well as other colleges throughout the state — to see what changed. While the board originally let local college presidents choose whether or not to install mask mandates, it changed its guidelines after Gov. Lee issued an executive order requiring public schools to allow exemptions amid mask mandates. The executive order only applies to K-12 schools, however, and does not deny institutions the right to implement mask mandates, but the TBR took it as a sign to prohibit its colleges from installing campus mask requirements unless there is a countywide mandate in place.
“I really can't explain the difference,” says Tennessee Board of Regents communications director Rick Locker when asked how the executive order applies to colleges, “other than that our general counsel and chancellor thought that this was the best guidance under the circumstances.” He notes that all of the campuses the TBR governs host K-12 students through dual-enrollment programs. It’s also worth noting that these colleges do not provide wide-scale student housing.
Masks in classrooms are one thing, but living situations are entirely different. Even in a normal year, college dorms are highways for germ transmission, and the Delta variant is much more contagious than the original COVID-19 strain. Private universities like Belmont, Lipscomb and Trevecca Nazarene are requiring students who test positive for COVID-19 to establish off-campus quarantine options. Fisk representative Madeline Guinee tells the Scene via email that the school has made arrangements for students who must isolate. TSU representative Lucas Johnson II tells the Scene via email that his school will “attempt to house [a student who tests positive] in a campus-designated isolation facility.” Vanderbilt’s website states that it will move COVID-19 positive students to “quarantine housing,” but it is unclear as to whether the university will provide that space or not. (The Scene is awaiting a response on that.)
“It’s kind of frustrating that I’ll be sitting with three layers of fabric on my face for every class,” says Bethany Husni, a senior at Belmont. “But I understand that that decision was made to keep everybody safe. And I think that, at least with my vaccinated peers, they’re feeling the same way. Like this is kind of annoying, but it’s for the greater good.”
“Whatever they would like to do to keep us safe, I am happy to oblige,” says Hanna Cron, a sophomore at Lipscomb. “I just want to get this contained and over with as soon as we can. I don’t want anyone else to get sick or die.”