Students walk on the campus of Rockhurst University on Jan. 25 in Kansas City. The Jesuit, Catholic school is one of only a few KC-area colleges or universities to require students to be vaccinated.
Students walk on the campus of Rockhurst University on Jan. 25 in Kansas City. The Jesuit, Catholic school is one of only a few KC-area colleges or universities to require students to be vaccinated. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Metropolitan Community College libraries and computer labs are currently open.

In summer of 2020 — months after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic — William Jewell College in Liberty put together a response plan to protect students and employees.

Called Operation Safe Campus, the framework included a five-level threat scale. 

The scale’s center level was to go into effect if there were zero cases on campus, but some cases reported in the Kansas City metro. It would trigger precautions including caps on large gatherings, a mask mandate in public spaces, and a move to hybrid online and in-person academics. 

But as COVID failed to disappear from the metro, the plan changed. 

Before the fall 2021 semester, William Jewell drafted a new, less restrictive safety plan, Operation Resurgent Campus. It also became one of the few local universities to require COVID-19 vaccines, with a current vaccination rate close to 90%. 

That in turn has allowed it to feel comfortable keeping classes in person, reducing social distancing and at times even removing mask requirements. 

As the small liberal arts college begins the spring semester amid another COVID resurgence from the highly contagious omicron variant, the campus is at its highest threat level under the new system. 

But it is still holding in-person classes and planning to reevaluate a temporary mask mandate as early as the coming weekend.

A look at colleges and universities across the region shows a range of coronavirus response plans, and each has its own way of handling vaccination, masking, social distancing and COVID tests.

The only consensus seems to be that it’s now about living with COVID-19 and not expecting it to vanish. 

Colleges move to temporary remote learning during COVID wave

After the holiday break, most universities were planning to hold classes in person despite the ongoing COVID wave, but several are starting cautiously. 

At Metropolitan Community College, classes that require hands-on work are in person, but lecture classes were moved online from Jan. 18 through Feb. 7.

Blake Fry, a college spokesperson, said MCC has been proactive about getting students the laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots they need to do work online when campus and library computer labs are closed. Campus libraries and computer labs are currently open.

“There has not been an instance where we’ve had an outbreak on any of our campuses,” he said. “I would say we’re proud of the fact that we’ve been really proactive. We have been on the forefront of mask requirements and going virtual.”

MCC is currently requiring masks in all indoor public spaces. It’s not requiring vaccines or testing for most students, though two campuses host testing sites run by Curative, which are open to the public weekdays 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Fry said MCC has discussed vaccine mandates but isn’t considering implementing one, in part because students don’t live on campus. 

In Lawrence, Haskell Indian Nations University announced earlier this month it would hold classes remotely at the beginning of the semester to allow more time for the university to ensure safety and accommodate students running into travel issues. The university will revisit the decision the first week of February. 

COVID vaccine requirements 

Haskell, like William Jewell, is one of a few local colleges or universities requiring vaccines for all students and staff. 

In May, William Jewell announced a vaccine requirement for fall 2021, to allow students and staff to get their shots over the summer. While some took advantage of medical or religious exemptions, most complied. 

The university started the fall semester with a mask mandate, but lifted it at the beginning of September, just weeks into the semester. 

After the holiday break, with students returning from all over the country as the omicron wave hit, the spring semester started with a mask mandate. The mandate is set to expire the last weekend of January unless William Jewell decides to extend it, said Daniel Holt, associate vice president for institutional strategy. 

The university has also adjusted its vaccine requirement to include booster shots, which can provide “relief” from mask mandates if enough students and staff get them.

On Monday, Holt said William Jewell had an approximately 60% booster shot rate but expected to soon reach 80%, in part through clinics planned for the following day. About 10% of the college community isn’t yet eligible for a booster shot. 

The university settled on a vaccine requirement because William Jewell is a “communal place” where more than 80% of students live on campus and spend most of their time there, Holt said. “We couldn’t really envision a world on campus where we didn’t take advantage of what the vaccination could do for the health of our community.”

While the college initially used other strategies to keep cases low, such as masking, it sensed that wasn’t a long-term solution, Holt said. 

“Once that vaccination came out, we knew there’s enough fatigue in the various mitigation strategies that we had that we needed to come up with some ways to make it simpler for students,” he said.

Rockhurst University, a Jesuit Catholic school in Kansas City, also requires vaccines for students. 

Matt Quick, vice president for student development and athletics, said the university surveyed students and employees and realized there was a disparity between the percentages of the two groups that planned to be vaccinated. 

Quick said students must be vaccinated unless they have a medical, religious or philosophical or personal reason for requesting an exemption.   

About 82% have been vaccinated while most others have asked for an exemption. Only a handful have neither reported their vaccine status nor requested an exemption, Quick said. 

While there is no vaccine requirement for staff, more than 90% have voluntarily reported being vaccinated. 

Quick said the mandate has allowed the university to put socially distanced classrooms back into normal configurations and to allow on-campus students back into dining halls. Previously, the university had asked that on-campus students bring food to their rooms, leaving dining hall seating for commuter students to reduce density. 

“One of our values is cura personalis, which is care of the whole person,” Quick said. “And our students and our employees, I think, readily embrace that and see our efforts to both gather information as well as be vaccinated as an expression of that.”

Rockhurst is not requiring booster shots but is working on making the shots available to students and hoping to provide incentives, such as raffles, to encourage students to get them. 

About 25% of students have received booster shots so far. 

Masks, testing and contact tracing to contain COVID on college and university campuses

Mask mandates are one of the most common precautions among area schools, but they aren’t universal. 

Area universities that require masks in many indoor settings include: 

  • The University of Kansas
  • Avila University
  • Rockhurst University
  • Metropolitan Community College
  • Johnson County Community College
  • Kansas City Kansas Community College
  • William Jewell, through at least Jan. 30
  • Park University
  • Haskell Indian Nations University
  • University of Central Missouri
  • Kansas State University

The University of Missouri-Kansas City, University of Missouri-Columbia and Donnelly College do not currently require masks, but do recommend them.

The University of Missouri System Board of Curators, which is appointed by the governor and oversees four public universities including UMKC and MU, denied UM System Chancellor and MU President Mun Choi’s requests to set a mask mandate for indoor spaces, or at least for all classrooms and labs. 

Donnelly College is a private Catholic school in Kansas City, Kansas. It is asking students to make a “personal decision” to mask but not requiring masks after Wyandotte County removed its mask mandate in December. 

Most schools also have protocols for students to report positive tests, exposures or symptoms so they can follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to avoid spreading COVID, and in some cases to do contact tracing. 

Some, such as Rockhurst and Johnson County Community College, offer testing on campus and most have resource pages to direct students to testing. 

Some also require testing for specific groups. For example, Kansas City Kansas Community College requires testing for unvaccinated students who live on campus and for unvaccinated athletes. MCC also tests unvaccinated athletes. 

Avila University will begin required COVID testing for unvaccinated employees in February. 

Colleges are also in frequent contact with health authorities, whom several administrators praised for their guidance and work containing the pandemic. 

“We meet with (the Kansas City Health Department) along with a consortium of other local colleges and universities once a week,” said Quick, the Rockhurst administrator. “I find the Zoom calls we have with them to be invaluable, and they should be applauded by our community. They have a tireless and thankless job.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.