Low Vaccination Rates, Easy Exemptions Raise Concerns at Connecticut Colleges

Less than half of the students enrolled at the Connecticut State Community Colleges and 40 percent of students enrolled at the Connecticut State Universities have provided information about their vaccination status for COVID-19, despite a mandate put in place by the Board of Regents in June.

Leigh Appleby, director of communications for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, told CT Examiner that, as of August 19, just over 14,200 of the approximately 32,800 currently enrolled at the Community Colleges have “attested” to having at least one dose of the vaccine. As of August 9, Appleby said that  8,870 of the approximately 26,300 students at the state Universities were recorded as having received at least one dose. 

The the state college system also allows medical and non-medical exemptions. Appleby said that 2,908 students enrolled at community colleges and 1,499 at the Universities had received exemptions. Every request for by a student for an exemption was approved.

Appleby noted in an email that “a significant number” of students had submitted proof of vaccination since those numbers were last updated. He also said that “a large number of students, particularly at the community colleges” are only taking classes online and therefore do not have the same vaccination requirements. 

Appleby said that the state system expected that about 85 percent of the students would be vaccinated against the virus, consistent with the rates they have seen among the students who have attested to being vaccinated. 

A faculty petition

On August 20, the Faculty Advisory Committee of the Board of Regents passed a resolution asking that faculty and staff be given a greater voice in determining the best way to teach classes and provide services at the schools. It also calls for “the widest possible use” of online platforms to conduct office hours, professional development and other activities outside of normal classes. 

The resolution was made into a petition, and has received over 750 signatures. According to Colena Sesanker, an associate professor of philosophy at Gateway Community College and co-chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee, over 700 of the signatures represent faculty and staff members. Sesanker said the petition had been submitted to Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Terrence Cheng. 

“The petition’s signatures demonstrate that the concern is widespread,” Sesanker wrote in an email to CT Examiner. 

According to memos issued to the Connecticut State Universities and the Connecticut State Colleges on August 19, the majority of faculty members are required to hold classes in-person, with “limited instances of pre-established online and hybrid courses” and would be allowed to move to online instruction “if, and only if, called for by the institution.”

College faculty are also not allowed to “unilaterally” change the manner of their office hours without the approval of the academic dean. The memo notes that there are areas with a greater capacity for physical spacing available on campus for students and faculty who don’t feel comfortable meeting in an office. 

The memos said that in-person classrooms would be “close to full capacity.”

David Stoloff, a professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State University and member of the advisory committee, said faculty members were concerned about the risk of having students who are ill or who haven’t been vaccinated in a classroom.

“We can’t be assured that the people in front of us, in a small space who are breathing together — that there aren’t people who haven’t been vaccinated, who aren’t carrying a disease that could hurt us, that could hurt each other,” he said. “Many of us believe that it puts our lives at risk by teaching.”

An associate professor at Gateway Community College, who spoke to CT Examiner but asked not to be identified, expressed concern about the colleges’ method for collecting proof of vaccination. At the state universities, students are required to upload a photograph of their vaccination card to an online portal. At the colleges, however, students are required only to “fill out an attestation,” according to Appleby, a process which at least two professors likened to “checking a box.” 

That lower standard of proof raised concerns among community college faculty.

“I feel that that is really insulting. I have the same professional qualifications as someone teaching at a four-year [institution],” the said one professor who taught at Gateway.

Health strategies

CSCU policy requires that all students, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors on campus. It also requires unvaccinated students to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. 

Bur Elle Van Dermark, a professor of history at Asnuntuck Community College and vice president for faculty for the 4C’s union, said there was no enforcement of the mandate.

Appleby said in an email that there were enforcement mechanisms available, through the office of student affairs and, in extreme cases, public safety. He said there had been very few instances of non-compliance with the mask mandates. 

Faculty members also said that the three-foot distancing requirement should be extended to six feet. CDC guidance dated July 23 suggests that institutions of higher education where not all students are vaccinated use social distancing of six feet as one of an array of possible mitigation strategies.

“The Department of Public Health has indicated that classrooms are low-risk spaces due to vaccine requirements and universal wearing of masks,” Appleby said in an email. 

Van Dermark and the Gateway professor expressed concerns about the risk of inadvertently bringing the virus home to children, who are ineligible for vaccination.

“The Delta variant is so contagious and disproportionately affecting … those who are immunocompromised or ineligible for the vaccines — our children,” said Van Dermark, whose grandchildren — a five-year-old, a three-year-old, and an infant — live with her. 

Lois Aime, director of educational technology at Norwalk Community College, an adjunct professor at the college and member of the Faculty Advisory Committee, said that she had been exposed to COVID-19 on campus on August 5, when the campus was sparsely populated. 

Aime, who said that remote work was not an option for her, said she was even more concerned, now that classes were beginning, with the risk of exposure. Appleby said that CSCU was not aware of any exposures to COVID-19 on campus over the summer.

“No one learns when they don’t feel safe” 

Stoloff said he believed there were ways that the colleges could be more creative in allowing online learning opportunities, and that, in some situations, these could actually offer a better learning model than traditional classroom learning. For example, he said, online classes allow professors and students to see one another’s faces and to hear what people are saying without it being muffled. 

“We’re almost at the point when people are willing to accept that a screen presence is not as good as a real presence, but it’s an adequate presence,” he said. 

Sesanker, however, emphasized in an email to CT Examiner that professors did want to return to the classroom.

“We want to go back but we want to know that we’ve done all we can to make the environment as safe as possible so that we’re not forcibly ejected from our campuses again a few weeks into this semester,” she said. “We want it to work. We don’t want to be preoccupied with the risk … No one learns when they don’t feel safe.” 


Editor’s Note: This story was updated to clarify that the figures are related to COVID-19 vaccinations

Latest from Emilia Otte