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Washington State University to require COVID-19 vaccine for students, employees but also allow exemptions

UPDATED: Wed., April 28, 2021

Huy Bui, left, a second-year pharmacy student at Washington State University, administers a COVID-19 test to Conrad Soran at a mobile testing site on WSU’s campus in Pullman on Sept. 2. On April 28, the university announced students planning to attend class in-person in the fall would need to be vaccinated.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Huy Bui, left, a second-year pharmacy student at Washington State University, administers a COVID-19 test to Conrad Soran at a mobile testing site on WSU’s campus in Pullman on Sept. 2. On April 28, the university announced students planning to attend class in-person in the fall would need to be vaccinated. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Washington State University will require proof of COVID-19 vaccinations for the upcoming year from all students, employees and volunteers partaking in activities at a university campus or location.

Although there will be a requirement, WSU also will allow personal exemptions for people who decide not to get vaccinated.

“That is really in recognition of the fact that a lot of folks in the country are talking about the idea that vaccinations should be a choice, and we don’t disagree,” said WSU spokesman Phil Weiler. “It should be a choice. What we want people to do is actually make a choice. … Inaction is not an option.”

WSU President Kirk Schulz made the announcement Wednesday, stating that exemptions will be allowed for medical, religious or personal reasons. Students who are participating in fully online or remote programs are automatically exempted.

Schulz was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

The move makes WSU the first public university in the state of Washington to adopt a COVID-19 vaccine requirement, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The university was keen on announcing the decision, one way or the other, before the semester’s end on Friday.

The requirement will extend to WSU Pullman students living in university housing. Proof of vaccination from those students will need to be submitted by Aug. 6, according to Wednesday’s announcement.

Students not living in university housing or with program-specific requirements will need documented proof of a vaccine or an exemption by Nov. 1. Those who don’t will be unable to register for spring courses and could face other restrictions, according to the president’s statement.

Exempt students, employees and volunteers may have to participate in regular COVID‑19 testing and/or other COVID‑19 public health measures, according to the university.

Weiler said more details will be released about how those interested can go about getting a personal exemption. WSU does not allow personal exemptions for the university’s mumps, rubella and measles vaccine requirement.

The university also needs to determine how to track vaccinations at WSU campuses outside of Pullman, Weiler said. He said more details on submitting proof of vaccinations should be available this summer.

“With that personal exemption, I think it sidesteps the argument about whether this is impinging on people’s personal liberties,” he said. “If they don’t want to do it, they don’t have to do it. They just have to receive the exemption.”

Weiler said he didn’t know whether WSU will have the personal exemption for other vaccines in the future.

“We believe that we’re on firm legal ground to be able to make this requirement despite the fact that it still has emergency use authorization,” Weiler said. “Our hope certainly is that the Food and Drug Administration will grant full approval prior to the start of the semester. If that’s the case, that simplifies the issue, but with this personal exemption, it makes sense to us that if that’s a concern people have – if they are legitimately concerned about the vaccine because it’s only under emergency use authorization – we’re giving them the opportunity to opt out.”

If there’s a personal exemption in place, however, is the requirement really a requirement?

“I think that’s a case of semantics,” Weiler said. “Our desire is that all students, faculty, staff and volunteers are vaccinated by the start of the fall semester. I think you always need to have exemptions in place. We are expanding that exemption category to include personal exemptions because, again, we’re not interested in getting into a debate with individuals. We really want to make sure people are making a conscious choice and are taking action one way or the other.”

Weiler said Schulz consulted with vice presidents and chancellors across the university about a potential requirement.

WSU leaders ultimately elected to put a system-wide requirement in place as a protective measure for students, employees and others amid concerns from those on campus, as well as parents, about returning to a physical classroom in the fall, Weiler said.

“The other thing is, we want to get the academic year back to normal as quickly as we can, and the best way to do that is to have everybody vaccinated,” he said. “If we can get everybody vaccinated, we can have the kind of academic experience that everybody expects and everybody wants.”

Daryll DeWald, chancellor of WSU Health Sciences Spokane, is among those supportive of the measure.

DeWald said students and the deans of the colleges of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Nursing and Medicine expressed interest in a requirement. Meanwhile, many WSU Spokane students and faculty – including those who have administered COVID-19 vaccines throughout the community – were already required to get vaccinated as part of their clinical assignments.

As part of those assignments, students use “clinical passport” software used to upload their vaccination information, DeWald said. The chancellor said the software could be useful with tracking vaccinations in the future.

“WSU has an obligation to serve the public good and do all it can to ensure the health and safety of citizens in the state of Washington,” DeWald said. “Because we have multiple campuses, I think this was important to make the decision so people knew that they could plan and that campuses could prepare.”

WSU Faculty Senate Chair David Turnbull said the Senate’s executive committee discussed the requirement over the last several weeks with the president and provost.

Turnbull said faculty members, particularly those older and more at risk, were concerned with the prospect of returning without a vaccine requirement.

“This has been an ongoing issue,” Turnbull said. “Many, many faculty have expressed concerns with the fall semester, and I think the overwhelming majority of the faculty really were hoping that the university would require the vaccinations going into the fall.”

Other schools undecided

Other larger institutions across the state, including the Eastern Washington region, are undecided on a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for the upcoming fall.

Eastern Washington, Gonzaga and Whitworth universities have not yet made a decision. EWU spokesman David Meany reiterated that the university continues to encourage vaccinations among the college community.

Kremiere Jackson, a spokesperson for Central Washington University, said CWU is monitoring the situation and remaining in contact with other public universities “to see how to best implement any kind of mandatory vaccinations.”

“President James L. Gaudino said if it were up to him, he would recommend requiring vaccinations,” Jackson said, “but the decision will be made by incoming President James Wohlpart, who will officially take over from Gaudino on June 7.”

Victor Balta, a spokesman for the University of Washington, said the UW expects to announce a decision by the end of May. Until then, the university’s focus is on promoting vaccine availability among students.

Outside of Washington, Lewis& Clark College in Portland announced a COVID-19 vaccine requirement a week ago. Representatives from the University of Idaho and North Idaho College have stated they do not plan to institute a requirement.

Representatives from Western Washington University, Evergreen State College and the University of Montana did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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