Northeast Indiana Higher Ed Won't Mandate Vaccines For COVID Mitigation As School Starts
Despite COVID-19 case numbers rising in Northeast Indiana amid the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, many colleges and universities have opted not to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for students or staff.
Huntington University, Purdue University Fort Wayne, Ivy Tech, Manchester University, Indiana Tech, and the University of Saint Francis have all decided not to require students or staff get vaccinated.
Legality surrounding vaccine requirements is not the concern for these schools. On July 18, a federal judge upheld Indiana University’s policy that students returning to campus in the fall must be vaccinated. Students who qualify for a vaccine exemption due to religious, medical, or ethical reasons must take additional precautions on campus, such as wearing face masks, participating in COVID testing, and quarantining in the case of an outbreak.
On August 12, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett declined a request to block IU’s vaccine mandate in a win for the public institution’s vaccine policy––but some schools are hesitant to require their students to get vaccinated for alternative reasons.
According to Russ Degitz, Chief Operating Officer at Huntington University, the school was hesitant to mandate the vaccine and infringe on community members’ ability to make personal decisions.
“We felt requiring [the vaccine] was a little bit of a gray area as it comes to some individual choice matters, and obviously, still balancing the greater public good,” Degitz said.
Purdue University Fort Wayne is already requiring students, faculty, and staff to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. Jeff Malanson, COVID-19 point of contact for PFW, mentioned that after numerous conversations with community members, students and staff suggested they would prefer to choose their vaccination status.
Ivy Tech opted to not mandate the vaccine due to their open-access policy. Unlike Indiana University, a public institution with a competitive selection process, Ivy Tech is open to any individual who chooses to attend. For this reason, limiting attendance to those who agree to get vaccinated contradicts their open-access policy, according to Aja Michael-Keller, Ivy Tech’s Executive Director of Marketing and Communications.
“We’re not requiring vaccines because we need to be available for all students, regardless of their personal situations and choices, to be able to access higher education,” Micahel-Keller said.
On July 30, Dr. Abby Van Vlerah, Vice President for Student Life at Manchester University, said the school would consider following Indiana State’s lead on creating a requirement, but does not currently have one in place.
“Should it become F.D.A. approved, not just for emergency use…. for example, if the K-12 schools start to require the vaccine for their students, and students are already coming in having had to have had the vaccine, that would certainly change what we’re looking at,” Van Vlerah said.
On Aug. 23, the F.D.A. granted approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s covid vaccine for people 16 and older.
Van Vlerah also attributed the decision to the demographics of the student and staff population, as well as the politicization surrounding the vaccine.
“There’s obviously vaccine hesitancy across the country and our students mirror the demographics of the communities that we live in and that they come from,” Van Vlerah said. “For example, Allen County where our Fort Wayne campus is has about a 46% vaccination rate, and Wabash County where our residential North Manchester campus is has about a 35% vaccination rate.”
Those numbers reflect the community vaccination rates as of July 30.
In an attempt to motivate students and staff to get vaccinated, Manchester University turned to incentives. If students reported their vaccination status, they were eligible for giveaway items such as T-shirts. Faculty members were offered an additional day off if they reported a fully vaccinated status.
Indiana Tech is also incentivizing students to get vaccinated by providing hope of a traditional-looking semester, according to Brian Engelhart, Vice President for Marketing and Communication at Indiana Tech.
Some benefits to vaccination include students not having to quarantine if they were exposed to the virus and are not showing symptoms. Another incentive is not being required to wear a mask if vaccinated.
“We've really tried to really kind of focus on the benefits rather than take more of a punitive approach by requiring people to [get vaccinated],” Engelhart said.
Indiana Tech is offering all students, faculty, staff, and members of the community at large the opportunity to get vaccinated at a free clinic on campus on Aug. 25 and 26.
Some schools, however, are solely relying on an honor code for their students to keep the community safe. The University of Saint Francis is not requiring the vaccine, in addition to not mandating mask wearing or social distancing.
According to Robert Pastoor, Vice President for Student Affairs and Chief of Staff at USF, the reasoning behind not mandating the vaccine is partially because USF has a low volume of residents living on campus.
Pastoor said the majority of students commute to USF, with approximately 400 students living on campus and the remaining 1400 students living off-campus within a 50-mile radius of the school.
USF is also not requiring students to report their vaccination status, and will not be offering COVID-19 tests on campus with the exception of athletes, who make up approximately half of the student population.
As of Aug. 9, USF is offering a $100 reward for students or staff who are fully vaccinated by Sept. 15.
Like many universities, USF indicated COVID protocol was subject to change.
“The consensus here was not to mandate [the vaccine],” Pastoor of USF said. “Now unless something changes that the Delta variant takes over Allen County and the state of Indiana, then that may be a whole different ball game.”