Staff and Faculty Immunizations Unresolved as State Schools Finalize Student Mandate

Students at the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, by and large, will be required to be vaccinated this fall — but the requirements for unionized faculty and staff remain unresolved.

The policy, which the Board of Regents adopted in a meeting on Thursday, requires all students on campus to be vaccinated when they return to campus for the fall of 2021. Students can apply for a medical or non-medical exemption. Those who are approved for an exemption may have to follow other protocols, including a modified quarantine, masking and periodic COVID testing. 

“An unknown mixture of vaccinated and unvaccinated persons in a classroom, dormitory or dining hall would require the continuation of mitigation measures, such as virtual classes, social distancing and masking,” reads a prelude to the policy. “This is not an optimal experience for students and they will not likely return to that environment.”

The board’s Faculty Advisory Committee, which drafted the policy, recommended that vaccines be required for everyone on campus, not just students. However, Ernestine Weaver, counsel to the board, said in the meeting that requiring faculty and staff to be vaccinated requires the consent of the unions. 

“In order to require unionized employees to be vaccinated, we must receive consent from each of the employee bargaining units,” she said. “If a bargaining unit does not consent, then its members cannot be compelled to be vaccinated.” 

Weaver said that since there wasn’t enough time to get consent from all the bargaining units before the meeting, the policy they drafted allows the CSCU president to mandate that vaccinations be required for all employees if they are able to secure the consent of all the collective bargaining units. 

It also gives the CSCU president the right to require all faculty, staff, vendors and visitors to wear masks while inside college and university buildings, unless someone attests that they are fully vaccinated. 

Leigh Appleby, director of communications for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, told CT Examiner that the Board of Regents approval of the recommendation would allow the state system to begin the formal bargaining process with the unions. 

Appelby also said that faculty, staff and students would be required to return for on-campus instruction in the fall. 

“Our safety is best advanced by having broad vaccination throughout the system, among all participants in the system, be they students, faculty or staff,” Board Chair Matt Fleury said at a meeting of the Executive Committee on June 16. 

Union views

Patricia O’Neill, president of the Connecticut college and university’s branch of the American Association of University Professors, told CT Examiner that the union fully supports requiring faculty, staff and students to be vaccinated before coming on campus in the fall.

“I would say an overwhelming majority of people are going to be very pleased with this action by the board,” said O’Neill. “People want to get back in the classroom and they want to feel safe, and this is a way of making people feel safe.”

Although O’Neill believes that most professors will want to teach in-person in the fall, she believes they should still have an option to teach remotely, especially for those who have health concerns. 

Gregg Crerar, president of the local SUOAF/AFSCME union branch, which represents administration faculty at the State Universities, said their union had not officially voted on whether to endorse mandatory vaccinations for faculty and staff. However, he said that he believes the majority of the union’s 800 members would be in favor of the policy.

Crerar said he believed vaccinating the students was necessary in order to have an operational, in-person campus in the fall. 

“Students are our customers, and we have to support being back on the ground,” he said. “You can’t run university campuses without having people on the ground.” 

Seth Freeman, president of the 4 C’s, which represents about 3,400 full-time and part-time faculty and staff at the community colleges, said that they wanted to look at the details of the board’s policy before making a decision. He said they supported the idea of having everyone on campus vaccinated, but the idea of mandating vaccinations as a condition of employment was fairly new ground. 

“We would want to look at the policy and look at the different types of exemptions that are possible for different individuals,” he said. 

He added, “From the position of the union, we want our workplaces to be as safe as possible.” 

A representative for the local AFT, which represents 700 instructors and faculty at the community colleges, was not available to speak. However, last fall, the AFT national union’s leadership adopted a resolution that, while urging members to take the vaccine, includes support for an “informed declination” for people who do not wish to get it.

Dr. David Blitz, chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee, said that he and fellow chair Colena Sesanker had been in contact with all of the collective bargaining units. Both Cerrar and Freeman said they had spoken with faculty representatives. 

Blitz said he hoped the bargaining units would take action on the policy either the first or second week of July. 

Professors, students and parents respond

The University of Connecticut approved a policy of mandatory vaccination for its students on June 4. Interim president Dr. Andrew Agwunobi said at a Board of Trustees meeting that the measure was being taken so that the university could open “safely and successfully in the fall.” Yesterday, a group called Family Freedom Endeavor Inc, which says it represents “dozens of University of Connecticut students and their parents” sent a letter to Agwunobi and former president Tom Katsouleas asking that the policy be withdrawn by July 2 on threat of litigation. 

Members of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities community have expressed a variety of responses to the idea of a vaccine requirement. 

Two parents sent letters to the Board of Regents opposing mandatory vaccinations for students. One cited concerns that the vaccine had not been fully approved by the FDA. The other raised worries about rare instances of cardiac inflammation that have occurred in young people after receiving the vaccine. 

Audrey Nielsen, chair of the Student Advisory Committee, warned the board to expect “hard conversations” with students about the vaccination. She said she heard concerns about what the semester would look like for students who did not get the vaccine, and that she was asked about the possibility of establishing resources for students to remain fully remote. 

Blitz warned that although the policy allows for non-medical exemptions, simply applying does not guarantee automatic acceptance. He said there need to be criteria and a process put in place to determine who should be exempt from the mandate. 

“Hopefully, education and persuasion will persuade everybody, and we will have very few holdouts,” he said. 

Two faculty members at the meeting spoke in favor of mandating vaccinations across the campuses. 

Jessica Kraybill, an assistant professor of psychology at Western Connecticut State University, shared her own experience with COVID-19.

“I got COVID from someone on campus in March 2020, and 15 months later I’m still sick,” said Kraybill. She said that the long-term effects of the virus on her immune system make her more susceptible to contracting it again and dying if she were to contract it a second time. 

“I love my job, and I don’t want to have to die because of it and I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’ve had to go through these past 15 months,” she said. 

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