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More LI colleges, universities moving toward mandatory COVID-19 shots

Stony Brook University student Christopher Jean, of West

Stony Brook University student Christopher Jean, of West Hempstead, also the student government vice president of student life, sees a transition period to normalcy until mandates prod more students to get vaccinated. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Long Island colleges and universities desperately want a normal fall semester, and increasingly they see mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations as the only way to achieve it.

As infections rise with the spread of the delta variant, and Long Island once again showing "substantial" transmission on maps released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local schools are now among the more than 600 nationwide that will require most students to get vaccinated or stay home.

WHAT TO KNOW

Local colleges and universities are now among the more than 600 nationwide that will require most students to get vaccinated or stay home.

College faculty and staff have not yet been included in the vaccine mandates on Long Island, but their rates of vaccinations are already far higher than those of students, according to school administrators.

The mandates will not go uncontested, however. Lawsuits challenging them and other COVID-19 policies could be filed within weeks, said John Gilmore, executive director of the New York chapter of Children’s Health Defense, the advocacy group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a leading critic of the vaccines.

In the last few days, Adelphi University, Molloy College and St. Joseph’s College announced new mandates for students, following Hofstra University’s spring announcement.

Mandates will go into effect for SUNY and CUNY students, and at the New York Institute of Technology, once any of the three vaccines now available under an emergency-use authorization wins full FDA approval. Stony Brook University and Farmingdale State College, however, will require dorm residents to be vaccinated even before full approval. At Farmingdale, indoor masking in academic settings will be required of everyone.

Long Island University has yet to announce its vaccine policy.

Medical and religious exemptions to vaccinations will be reviewed case by case at schools with mandates, and those who get them would be subject to extra testing and mask requirements.

The schools are part of an accelerating movement toward mandates in states that don't restrict them. Last week, New York City and California mandated vaccinations for workers, and Thursday, President Joe Biden announced federal employees must be vaccinated or face extra testing and protocols including limits on travel.

Considering the evidence on vaccine effectiveness, combined with the surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and "you put the two pieces together and it’s not surprising" about growing vaccine mandates, said Dr. K.C. Rondello, an associate professor at Adelphi University’s public health program who has helped in the school's pandemic response.

He added that proportionately, "college-age students have some of the lowest vaccine rates of any age groups. In our experience, only 26 percent of our student population has uploaded their proof of full vaccination into our health portal." And, he said, "While it is true that college-aged students are less likely to get severe disease than seniors … it is a population that can pose significant risk to the community."

Hesitancy, and legal action, expected

The mandates will not go uncontested, however. Lawsuits challenging them and other COVID-19 policies could be filed within weeks, said John Gilmore, executive director of the New York chapter of Children’s Health Defense, the advocacy group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a leading critic of the vaccines.

"Trust me, they’re coming," Gilmore said, noting the group believes universities should encourage vaccinations and masks for those who believed they would be helpful, but without mandates.

Michael Vernick, an attorney in Washington, D.C., who has led his law firm's government contracts groups with a focus on higher education among other sectors, said vaccine mandates that are carefully tailored and take into consideration state law and executive orders "have a reasonable chance of being upheld."

Suits brought by students against Indiana University's mandate, and by employees against a Houston hospital, were dismissed in June.

Stony Brook University students are planning a return to normal this fall with events that typically attract large crowds but were canceled last year during the pandemic. The Wolfieland carnival and Stony Brook's homecoming, both in the fall, are back on, as are spring events, the Brookfest concert and the Roth Regatta, said Manjot Singh, of Queens, president of the Undergraduate Student Government who will be a senior civil engineering major in fall.

During the last school year, he said, infection rates were kept low with strict protocols and widespread observance of masking rules and remote classes.

"Now we are planning for large events, social distancing guidelines are loosening up," Singh said, "in-person classes are coming back and therefore vaccines are here to protect us at the end of the day."

Christopher Jean, 20, a Stony Brook junior from West Hempstead who is student government vice president of student life, said the big events he helps coordinate aren't yet confirmed and sees a transition period to normalcy until mandates prod more students to get vaccinated. "I know friends who aren’t fans of it, but they would be willing to get vaccinated in order to return to campus," he said.

Stony Brook public health graduate student Margaret Ross, 20, of Blue Point, who volunteers in COVID-19 education and vaccination outreach at the university, said while many students are enthusiastic about the vaccine, she knows some who have reservations. They are waiting to get exemptions, or, she said, "are holding out to the last possible minute."

Hesitancy and resistance has kept the nation’s vaccination rate stubbornly below the levels needed for herd immunity, experts have said. And anger toward and among those resisting vaccinations is roiling even as more employers — from Google, Walmart and Disney to hospital systems to city and state governments — insist workers get vaccinated or lose their jobs or access to in-person offices.

Faculty, staff vaccination rates higher

College faculty and staff have not yet been included in the vaccine mandates on Long Island, but their rates of vaccinations are already far higher than those of students, according to school administrators.

The union representing New York State college instructors would be open to negotiations on a mandate for its 37,000-member bargaining unit, said Frederick Kowal, statewide president of the United University Professions, which includes faculty at 29 state-operated campuses and three medical centers.

"There is a small percentage of our membership who is strongly opposed to vaccines; for some it’s this particular vaccine and for some it is vaccines in general," he said. "I continue with the hope that by the strong urging of colleagues and the potential for a mandate, they will take the necessary step of being vaccinated for the well-being of our communities."

Students who defy the new mandates could find themselves barred from campus.

"If they have not submitted proof of vaccination, they will be notified they have been dropped from the class," according to a statement from Rockville Centre-based Molloy College. "Students who have not complied with the vaccine mandate or do not have an approved medical or religious exemption on file with the college will not be permitted at any Molloy location after August 25."

The SUNY system is developing a digital interface with the state's immunization system to keep track of student and faculty vaccination rates on campus, said Kevin Murphy, Farmingdale's director of health and wellness. Students who don't consent to upload proof of their vaccination status to that system would be treated as unvaccinated with weekly testing, social distancing and masking at extracurricular events, Murphy said. Everyone, including the vaccinated, will be required to mask in academic settings on campus.

Once a vaccine is mandated for all, he said, those with religious and medical exemptions will continue to be tested weekly and "when we hit certain thresholds of infection they will not be able to come onto campus or attend class in person."

Remote learning remains an option

Schools expect remote instruction options to be much more limited in the fall, although they are prepared to pivot to online classes if the infection rate spikes. But remote options will remain available at state community colleges, which, as part of the SUNY system will also mandate vaccines once fully approved by the FDA.

Nassau Community College is continuing to offer face-to-face, hybrid and remote options for all students in the fall, while Suffolk County Community College students who remain unvaccinated "will be provided classes through one of our remote modalities so that all students are served," said spokesman Drew Biondo. "No student will be barred from learning."

New York Institute of Technology is participating in the White House COVID-19 vaccine College Challenge along with nearly 100 other New York colleges and hundreds across the country to educate and encourage vaccinations. On Wednesday it will offer its college community first doses of the Moderna vaccine, music and giveaways at events on its Old Westbury and New York City campuses, with second doses offered Sept. 1. For now, however, it doesn’t require proof of vaccination while testing and masking policies are evolving.

"There’s a team that discusses this weekly," said Provost Junius Gonzales. "All you need is even a small breakout, it could be in Nassau County, that could completely change what you do on campus. That’s why I keep emphasizing ‘for now.' "

Jessica McAleer, a spokesperson for St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, said absent an order to go to remote instruction, the school's "steadfast goal … is to remain in-person indefinitely." But it will have a tiered plan of response to outbreaks, she added.

"If we have learned anything from the past year and a half, it is that our plans need to remain fluid and flexible given the uncertain future trajectory of the virus," McAleer said.

In June, the state disaster emergency was lifted, and along with it, the order for schools to go remote when infections hit a certain level. But colleges say they are prepared to pivot to remote instruction if conditions warrant.

"Our plans for fall include contingencies to respond to any changes in the public health situation, as needed," said Karla Schuster, a spokesperson for Hofstra University, which, like St. Joseph's, will require vaccinations of anyone coming on to its Hempstead campus in the fall.

Gavin Petersen, 20, a junior drama major in the fall from New Jersey, is an orientation leader assisting groups of admitted Hofstra freshmen staying on campus for orientation weeks.

He said he doesn’t ask about their vaccination status but hasn’t had anyone complain about the mandate to get vaccinated.

"Most of them say they are excited for the chance to have a normal year," he said.

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