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Without Universal Vaccination, UNH Starts School Year With 'What-Ifs'

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University of New Hampshire students will return to campus with about 70% of the student body vaccinated against COVID-19, UNH president Jim Dean said at a town hall this week.

The university expects the 70% figure to increase as more students arrive on campus and upload their vaccination cards. Dean said administrators are also working to determine how many faculty and staff are regularly on campus to refine the vaccination estimate. Faculty and staff have a vaccination rate of about 80%.

“New Hampshire has passed legislation making it illegal for public universities to mandate vaccination, so we will not be able to do that,” he said. “However— we can't emphasize this enough— we strongly recommend vaccination as our most important weapon against COVID-19.”

Gov. Chris Sununu signed a “medical freedom” bill into law in late July that prohibits most public institutions from denying access to those who are unvaccinated.

Several public universities in states without similar legislation, including the University of Massachusetts, the University of Vermont, and the University of Maine system, have required students to get vaccinated before returning to campus.

UNH has imposed several safety measures to prevent the spread of the Delta variant of the virus across campus.

Unvaccinated students will be asked to wear masks at all times while indoors and vaccinated students will be asked to wear masks if “they'll be close to other people for more than just a few minutes.” Wastewater will be tested for early indicators of the virus and students will submit regular COVID-19 tests.

The school will also open up its quarantine dorms, which sometimes held hundreds of students last year.

However, without the protections enjoyed by a fully vaccinated group, parents, students, and university staff have a flurry of questions about the upcoming year.

At a separate town hall for staff, several faculty members questioned how they should adapt their classes for students stuck in quarantine, how to enforce mask policies and how to handle students who say they aren’t feeling well.

“We trust your judgment when students come to you,” said Kate Ziemer, the senior vice provost for academic affairs. “We are not going to specify how you in your individual class choose to do that."

Parents of students at the university aired their concerns about the setup during their own town hall.

“What if a student finds out their roommate is not vaccinated? Can accommodations be made to move to another residence hall?” one parent asked.

“Are all students isolating and quarantine located in the same hall, whether they're vaccinated or non-vaccinated?” another asked.

Even with all of the safety precautions in place, students and faculty alike worried they might be abruptly sent home as rates of COVID-19 rose across the United States, including in New Hampshire. Strafford County, which covers UNH’s main Durham campus, has a substantial level of community transmission, according to the N.H Department of Health.

“I think one of the things we’ve learned in COVID is there’s a potential for anything," Dean said. “Lesson number one from the last 18 months is we don’t know what the future holds.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.