By Lola Duffort/VTDigger
The Vermont State Colleges System’s three residential schools will require students to be vaccinated against Covid-19 before coming on campus this fall, regardless of whether federal regulators have granted full approval for the shots.
College officials at Castleton University, Vermont Technical College and Northern Vermont University had earlier announced that they would require student vaccinations — if the three vaccines in circulation in the U.S. were given full approval by the Food and Drug Administration. (All three shots, made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, have emergency use authorization.)
But the FDA has indicated that such approval is not likely to arrive until much later this year. Citing concerns about the highly transmissible Delta variant, rising cases nationwide and low vaccination rates among young people, Vermont State Colleges System Chancellor Sophie Zdatny on Thursday, July 22, recommended to trustees on the system’s executive board that the colleges move ahead with a mandate anyway. The executive board endorsed the recommendation unanimously.
Students will be allowed to apply for medical or religious exemptions. The mandate will not extend to those attending school virtually.
Other schools in Vermont have made such partial reversals in recent weeks. The University of Vermont and Champlain College both initially said they would require the vaccines once fully authorized by federal regulators, and then later said they would press ahead with a mandate anyway.
“I have consulted with medical and public health experts at the university and in the state,” UVM President Suresh Garimella said in a statement announcing the school’s decision. “The risk is simply too high to take chances with Covid-19, especially with thousands of our students coming from other states where vaccination rates are lower than ours.”
The Community College of Vermont, which is also in the state college system, will not mandate a Covid-19 vaccine for most programs, officials announced last month. Because the college is a commuter school with little close-contact work, it does not typically require students to file vaccination paperwork anyway, officials said.
Katherine Levasseur, director of external and governmental affairs for the chancellor’s office, said students in CCV programs that require regular immunizations, including in allied health, will fall under the Covid-19 mandate.
Vermont State Colleges System faculty and staff will not be required to be immunized. Ryan Cooney, a student at VTC and trustee, told fellow board members that he strongly supported the student requirement. And he urged them to consider extending the mandate to employees “if we’re really, truly seeking herd immunity and a safety of campus.”
Zdatny responded that it was possible officials might revisit the decision not to seek such a requirement from employees, although she noted such a discussion would need to take place with the staff and faculty unions.
“The majority of [employees] are Vermont residents, and the vaccination rates are incredibly high in the age bands that our faculty and staff fall into,” Levasseur added in an interview, noting that vaccination rates among younger Vermonters still lag far behind. Only 50% of 18-21 year-olds have started vaccination, according to the latest data from the state.
The question of whether to require vaccination for Covid-19 on college campuses has been divisive across the country, and red-state schools have been particularly loath to impose mandates. In a closely watched lawsuit earlier this week, a federal judge upheld Indiana University’s decision to mandate the shots.
In Vermont, the norm appears to be that most residential colleges will require immunization this fall, at least for students. Middlebury College, Norwich University, Vermont Law School, Bennington College and St. Michael’s College have announced such mandates, although they are not all extending the requirement to faculty.
Goddard College, the low-residency school in Plainfield, is one outlier. Neither students nor staff will be required to vaccinate.