COVID-19 vaccinations will be a prerequisite for students returning to three Vermont State College System schools this fall.
The VSCS Board of Trustees voted unanimously last week to require the vaccine for all students attending Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College — the system’s three residential schools — based on the recommendation of Chancellor Sophie Zdatny.
Previously, the schools had said they would only require students to be vaccinated if the three vaccines in circulation — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — which currently only have emergency use authorization, were approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
However, Zdatny cited the increased spread of the more transmissible Delta variant and low vaccination rates among college-age students as cause to require the vaccines prior to FDA approval.
“We think in the interest of public health, it makes sense for us to move forward to mandate the vaccinations for students that will be on campus this fall,” she said.
Dennis Proulx, dean of students at CU said he and his fellow deans of students at NVU and VTC supported the mandate, noting that “almost every other college in the state” has done so.
The three schools will join a number of other colleges around the state that have announced COVID vaccines will be mandatory this fall, including Bennington College, Middlebury College, Norwich University, Vermont Law School, Champlain College, St. Michael’s College and the University of Vermont.
Students will be able to file for religious or medical exemptions.
Patricia Moulton, president of VTC, voiced her support for the mandate, stating it would help achieve herd immunity on campuses, noting the low vaccinations rates among college students.
Jason Enser, dean of students at VTC, reported 246 students out of about 1,300 have said they’ve been vaccinated and 15 have requested exemptions.
Based on current data provided by the state, Zdatny reported that 50% of 18 to 21 year olds and 62% of 22 to 29 year olds have had at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.
“Those are the two lowest age bands,” she said.
But while the state college system’s residential colleges will require the vaccine, the Community College of Vermont will not.
CCV President Joyce Judy she has spoken to other community college presidents around the country and none of them were requiring vaccines either. She pointed out CCV, like most community colleges, does not require students to fill out a health form when they enroll showing they have received other common vaccines.
Judy noted that 81% of CCV students are part time and 95% of them are Vermonter residents. She added that only 25% of CCV classes will be in person this fall.
“We feel good about where we are,”she said, adding that the school, which has 12 campuses across the state, has launched a social-norming campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated.
Proulx reported that CU will ask students to provide a vaccination card to show they have received the COVID vaccine, but is not asking for verification from a medical provider unless students are applying for a medical exemption. Students may self-attest to religious exemptions.
VTC student and Trustee Ryan Cooney said he supported the mandate but urged the committee to include faculty and staff “ if we’re really, truly seeking a herd immunity and a safety of campus.”
Zdatny stated there was a “pretty high vaccination rate among faculty and stuff,” but suggested it might be worth surveying them to get a better sense of how many are vaccinated.
While no faculty and staff mandate made it into the resolution passed by the committee, Trustee David Silverman recommended encouraging school officials to work with unions to get as many employees vaccinated as possible.
Trustee Megan Cluver acknowledged that students will be returning to campuses in several weeks and asked if they would be given a grace period to get the vaccine given the timing.
Jonathan Davis, dean of students at NVU, said his campus is considering a mask mandate for students who are not yet fully vaccinated, but no firm decision has been made.
Silverman later added that he hoped the resolution provided enough flexibility to schools to be able to implement plans.
“We need to give them plenty of latitude to be able to make this work for the campus in the spirit of getting everybody vaccinated,” he said.
At CU, interim President Jonathan Spiro said he is “ecstatic” about the decision.
“It’s the right thing to do.”
He said CU faculty and staff will be encouraged to get vaccinated, but acknowledged that most employees are Vermonters and vaccination rates for residents are high.
Spiro said school officials currently don’t know how many students are vaccinated, but said they are planning on polling students, faculty and staff to see where they are at.
He pushed back on the notion that requiring students to get the COVID vaccine is a “radical imposition,” noting that colleges already mandate students be vaccinated against illnesses like measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox.
“It would kind of be absurd if we did not add to that list the most deadly pandemic in over a hundred years,” he said.