June 10 – Kansas colleges plan to return campus operations to normal in August and drop requirements for masks and social distancing, although young adults remain the most unlikely group over the age of 18 to be vaccinated.
The University of Kansas, Kansas State University, and Wichita State University all expect a campus environment similar to life before the pandemic, with a handful of safety precautions in place.
University officials said they are preparing for face-to-face freshmen, full classrooms, and other on-campus events. The decision to relax restrictions comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month issued guidelines that, in most cases, vaccinated Americans are not required to wear masks.
On Wednesday, KU Chancellor Douglas Girod announced that the university was moving into Level 2 operation, the least restrictive status since the pandemic began last year.
The university operated on a scale of 1 to 5, with one being normal and five being a complete campus shutdown.
“There seems to be a real excitement about how this fall semester is slated to begin,” said Thomas Lane, Dean of Studies at Kansas State University. “There is a certain amount of enthusiasm and excitement about this actual personal experience.”
Lane said the university’s decisions would change to reflect the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and was confident that enough students and staff would be vaccinated to allow campus to reopen safely.
Lane said as of May 2021, 60% of the KSU student body will be vaccinated. KU didn’t respond to a request for vaccination dates, and Wichita state said the numbers were not available.
Nationwide, the 18- to 24-year-olds are the least likely to be vaccinated. As of Wednesday, 34% of Kansans in that age group had been vaccinated, compared with 43% nationwide.
With no required social distancing or masking, vaccination will be the “only line of defense” for Kansas colleges against COVID-19, said Josh Michaud, director of global health at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“I think it’s almost a foregone conclusion that if 30, 40, 50% of the people on campus are unvaccinated, the chances of an outbreak are very high,” Michaud said.
While campus operations are almost normalizing again, K-State, KU and WSU will continue to offer COVID-19 tests and vaccinations. However, no one said they would require students to be vaccinated.
“Right now we are urging all members of our community, including students, to get vaccinated,” said Erinn Barcomb Peterson, a spokeswoman for the KU, in an email.
In the absence of requirements, universities said they expected messaging campaigns around vaccines in the summer and fall.
“Marketing specifically to a specific audience is critical,” Lane said. “So that means finding out who are student influencers who can help promote vaccinations.”
“Creative marketing to our student body will be a key ingredient in getting our vaccination numbers to the point we want.”
Camile Childers, director of student health services in WIchita state, said her campaign will likely include an incentive program early in the school year.
Although details are not set, she said in an email that the university would encourage students to present their vaccination records to the university or to get vaccinated at the campus clinic.
In addition, in Wichita, Childers said, all students in campus apartments will be mailed COVID-19 test kits and asked to fill them out before moving in.
While much of campus life will return to normal, some pandemic changes will persist.
At the KU, according to the university’s planning website, tents and desks set up outdoors on campus with WiFi access will remain.
Lane said K-State will continue to offer teletherapy appointments for students and extended move-in appointments in dormitories.
As universities make these decisions, their governing body will change this summer. For the first time, it will consist primarily of members selected by Democratic Governor Laura Kelly, rather than the appointments of Republican predecessors Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer.
Kelly will replace three board members whose terms expire this month.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Kelly said she believed the board would work with each university rather than impose a single policy.
“I think that together with each university they will come to a conclusion about the safest and best way to provide our children with an education,” said Kelly.
Kelly has yet to say who she will be named to the board of directors. Former Rep. Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, and Carl Ice, a past president of the BNSF Railway who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, both filed financial disclosures in May and listed the Board of Regents as their positions.
The revelations don’t guarantee Kelly Hineman and Ice will be named to the board, but they do suggest that their administration has at least considered them.
Hineman confirmed to The Star that he had discussed the position with the Kelly administration but declined to comment. Ice did not immediately respond to The Star’s request for comment.
Kelly’s office didn’t respond to questions about Ice and Hineman.
In a statement e-mailed, Kelly’s spokeswoman Reeves Oyster said the governor would “continue to appoint skilled, forward-thinking Kansans to the board of directors who protect our state’s world-class, affordable higher education system and share her vision of our colleges and universities as engines of economic growth . “
Jonathan Shorman from the star contributed to this story.