This Wednesday was freshman move-in day at Keene State College, an annual ritual when the college welcomes its newest class on campus. The remaining students will return this weekend and classes begin Monday.
Not only is the start of the new academic year an exciting time for students, their return to campus also brings energy to the Keene community, not to mention a boost to local businesses.
Distinguishing the start of this academic year from every other before last year, however, are the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. Last year, the college handled those challenges effectively, setting up a robust testing and contact tracing program, swiftly isolating or otherwise quarantining those testing positive, implementing and enforcing masking and other social distancing protocols and adjusting the academic calendar, among other steps. As a result, students were able to remain on campus throughout the year without the significant impairment of their college experience that stemmed from the preceding year’s spring semester of remote learning.
This year, students are returning as the spread of the delta variant is causing COVID-19 cases to spike significantly, to the extent that most of New Hampshire and New England is experiencing substantial or high transmission rates.
And, again, the college is implementing a comprehensive plan to limit the spread of the virus and avoid pivoting to a remote learning environment. Among the steps are testing for students returning to campus and employees, weekly testing of all at least through September and a mask requirement inside campus buildings and for outdoor groups of more than 10 people.
One arrow that won’t be in the administration’s quiver is requiring COVID vaccinations. President Melinda Treadwell had hinted in an interview early this summer that the college might implement such a requirement if the FDA granted full approval of the vaccines, and on Monday, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine received that approval. In the interim, however, the Legislature and Gov. Chris Sununu stepped in and enacted House Bill 220, which forbids all public entities in New Hampshire from requiring a COVID-19 vaccination.
It’s a dangerous intrusion on public health decisions in every respect, and because it applies to the state university system, Keene State is left without this option for protecting its students. Instead, it is urging students and staff to get the shot.
As Treadwell told The Sentinel, the college “proved we could not only survive but thrive during COVID last year”, and there’s good reason to hope the precautions in place for this year will keep students safe and on campus. Still it’s astounding the state would prevent the university system campuses from requiring vaccination if they conclude the data and science support the move. It’s also particularly dumbfounding because they can continue to require, as they should, students be immunized against such other communicable diseases as measles, mumps or diphtheria.
And don’t be fooled by any insistence by the Republican-led Legislature or Sununu that their interest is merely to protect students’ individual rights, given that they have been otherwise busily chipping away at those same students’ voting rights.
The handcuffing of Keene State by HB 220 also has ramifications beyond the campus. Last year, Keene and the college worked closely to align their public health measures, and Treadwell encouraged such measures as the city’s mask mandate to help the college enforce its COVID-related restrictions on off-campus students. Now, with the city likely unwilling to — or, in the absence of another state of emergency declaration, unable to — impose a mask requirement or gathering-size restriction, the risk of COVID transmission in the city or to the campus is increased.
Perhaps the measures the college has in place will address that concern, and Treadwell and the Keene State administration have excelled in developing sound precautions rooted in science and data to keep the students in town and on campus. The students deserve the best opportunity to stay there throughout the year, and it’s very much in the city’s interest that they have that opportunity.
It’s shameful the state won’t trust the college to make a sound decision regarding a vaccination requirement in the best interest of students, staff and community.