I remember walking through Penobscot Hall at the University of Maine on March 11, 2020 and seeing open dormitories and students sitting together in tears. We had just learned that we would not be returning to campus after spring break.
With the loss of our traditional classrooms, sports, activities, and campus life, our world seemed to crumble around us.
Looking back on this feeling, I know there is nothing I would not do to prevent that from happening again. The University of Maine System should require the vaccine for students and employees to protect our health and our college experience.
Vaccines are widely available and free, but college students are among the least vaccinated adult population. Estimates suggest that only 57.5% of college students will be vaccinated before fall, significantly less than 78.4% of older adults. These lower vaccination rates among college students, combined with the increase in the Delta variant in Maine, pose an immediate threat to our safe return. They could even threaten a repeat of spring 2020, when colleges and universities were forced to close and transition to distance learning.
Many large state schools, such as California have required the vaccine to ensure their campuses remain open. Federal courts have confirmed these university mandates against challenges. Husson University and other Maine schools are demanding the vaccine to protect their communities; the UMS should do the same.
A vaccination mandate for the University of Maine System will also protect those who cannot be vaccinated such as children under 12 years of age. Many employees and students will come into contact with unvaccinated people and could transmit the virus to them.
In Mississippi, the delta variant and low vaccination rates have led to an increase in in pediatric patients in intensive care units. In Georgia, the tragic death of 5-year-old Wyatt Gibson was a reminder that COVID can infect and even kill young children. Even if they survive the infection, estimates suggest that up to 30% of infected children will develop long-lasting or "prolonged COVID" symptoms. As Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine says, not vaccinating is "condemning an entire generation of adolescents to neurological damage in a totally unnecessary way."
With these risks, it is essential that everyone take responsibility for their communities and get vaccinated. Maine has had a staggering COVID response so far, keeping infections low and vaccinations high. Unfortunately, Chancellor Malloy's decision of not to require the vaccine until it is approved by the FDA threatens that success. UMS should join the nearly 600 universities across the country, many in Maine, that are demanding the fall vaccine and enforcing a mask mandate until vaccination rates high enough to prevent flare-ups.
My colleagues and I want to be able to cheer in a crowded Alfond Arena, learn from our instructors in person, and spend long days in the library and research labs without wearing a mask. Without a vaccine mandate, we are putting our college experience and our communities at risk. We must avoid another disruptive mid-semester shift to looking at squares on a laptop. Although students and employees must be vaccinated voluntarily, the University of Maine System must institute a vaccination mandate to ensure that we can all be safe and healthy.
Lara Chern is majoring in mechanical engineering at the Honors College of the University of Maine. These are their views and do not necessarily express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine .