Biden threatens to withhold funding from colleges over vaccines

US threatens aid cut if states prohibit Covid protections, and then makes clear university campuses are included

September 2, 2021
Anti-vaccine and anti-mask mandate protesters shouting holding banners in Massachusetts as Biden threatens to withhold funding from colleges over vaccines
Source: Getty

The Biden administration is holding out the possibility of forcing vaccine and mask mandates on US college campuses, saying institutions “must ensure” health protections for students who need them.

The US Education Department formally announced action on the issue in schools, warning that it might cut federal aid in places where local officials have banned their schools from mandating mask use.

That announcement did not include higher education. But in response to questions, the department made clear that it regarded the same basic understanding as applying to colleges and universities.

The department’s threats rely on federal civil rights laws that forbid discrimination against students based on any disabilities. In that context, states could be deemed in violation if they ban protections against the spread of Covid in educational settings.

The administration’s public announcement was directed at five states where officials have taken steps to forbid mask mandates in schools, an Education Department official said.

“That said,” the official told Times Higher Education in response to questions about mask and vaccine mandates, “post-secondary institutions that receive financial assistance from the department also must ensure that qualified students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from their school’s educational programmes.”

The administration is acting amid growing tensions at all levels of education in the US – marked by lawsuits and job resignations – as policymakers in conservative-leaning parts of the country embrace opposition to masks and vaccines as ideological litmus tests.

One of the more dramatic moments occurred at the University of Georgia, where an 88-year-old psychology professor resigned mid-class after a student repeatedly refused to properly wear her face mask.

The academic, Irwin Bernstein, had come out of retirement to help handle an overload in a class mandatory for graduation, and his abrupt departure left upperclassmen struggling to find alternatives.

The case is one among several of faculty at US institutions quitting because their campus leaders would not require Covid protections. Several other institutions, however, have been sued by their students over vaccine mandates.

Reaction to the Biden move fits this pattern. US Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the top-ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, accused Joe Biden and his team of “using the Department of Education as a propaganda tool against states and governors that disagree with them”.

But the chief lobby group for US higher education, the American Council on Education, acknowledged that the Biden administration had the right to force compliance with basic Covid safety measures by threatening to withhold federal money – which many colleges and universities need to survive.

“There is absolutely no dispute about it,” Terry Hartle, the council’s senior vice-president for government relations and public affairs, said of the department’s authority to act.

Conditions on campuses and beyond also may improve as rising infection rates in the US convince more reluctant Americans to accept masks and vaccines, Dr Hartle told THE.

After it encountered more than 300 positive Covid tests among its students in just a week, Duke University announced that all of its faculty and staff must have proof of vaccination by the start of October or face firing without any opportunity for rehiring. Duke already had required its students to be vaccinated.

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