University of Hawaii students must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to return to campuses in the fall, it was announced Monday.
However, the vaccine requirement will take effect only after at least one of the three COVID-19 vaccines currently under emergency use authorization has been approved and fully licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is anticipated this summer.
“It is clear that a vaccinated campus is a safer campus for everyone, and a fully vaccinated student community enables the best opportunity for a healthy return to high-quality face-to-face teaching, learning and research,” UH President David Lassner said in a news release. “This decision does not come lightly, and is based on guidance from our own Health and Well-Being Working Group as well as the American College Health Association recommendation that all on-campus college students be required to be vaccinated.”
“Having fully vaccinated campuses will help tremendously to create a much safer learning environment and minimize any transmission of COVID-19 from person to person,” state Health Director Dr. Libby Char said in the release.
UH-Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin shared similar sentiments in an email to the Tribune-Herald. She said requiring the university’s on-campus students to be vaccinated is for everyone’s safety and well-being.
“Our universities and colleges believe strongly in the importance of science and protecting the health and safety of our community,” she wrote. “This policy allows us to lead by example.”
During a news conference Monday afternoon, Lassner said UH is waiting to implement the policy until at least one vaccine has received full authorization from the FDA, because some individuals are concerned about being inoculated with a vaccine only available under emergency use authorization.
The university system also is working through a verification process.
Lassner said UH is watching closely the state’s Safe Travels program and has a relationship with the state organizations that can perform automatic verification of vaccine cards.
But UH “may also just ask people to show us their vaccination card.”
While it may be possible to forge those cards, Lassner said UH doesn’t believe people will be highly motivated to do so.
More detailed information regarding the vaccine requirement will be available in the coming months.
Unvaccinated students will still be welcomed and may enroll in online courses.
Online learners will continue to be able to engage with student services online, as they have done over the past year, and will be able to participate in student activities virtually, UH said.
There will, however, be some courses where there is no online option.
“At that point, it will be up to the student to decide what is best for them,” UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said in an email. “Like the message (says), we do not take this step lightly and know that it will force difficult decisions.”
Irwin said she was hopeful that students and families understand and that the policy will strengthen UH-Hilo’s on-campus enrollment because students will feel safer on campus.
“We have a lot of details that we’ll be working through over the time between now and the beginning of the semester, but we wanted to get word out there now so that our students would know they should get vaccinated, and know that they will be coming back to a safe UH campus, whichever UH campus they attend,” Lassner said. “We’ve had many inquiries from parents who are concerned and want to see a vaccination requirement so that they know that their child will be coming to a safe campus.”
The university also will begin formal discussions with the three unions that represent UH employees about possibly requiring COVID-19 vaccinations.
“I am hopeful that our collective bargaining units will also be on board with this and agree for their membership to be vaccinated,” Irwin said.
As with existing health requirements, students will be able to request medical and religious exemptions.
UH’s health requirements for students currently include a TB clearance as well as immunizations for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR); tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis; and varicella, or chicken pox. The meningococcal conjugate vaccination also is required for first-year students living in on-campus housing.
According to Lassner, there are approximately 960 religious and medical exemptions out of nearly 48,000 students across the UH system.
Looking forward to the fall
As for the fall semester, Irwin said UH-Hilo will continue to follow federal and state guidelines regarding masking and physical distancing.
According to the chancellor, classrooms and labs will be prepared over the summer to allow for more in-person classes.
“If and when we are allowed to do so, we will lessen the distancing requirements currently in place and may be able to ease up on the mask mandate for vaccinated individuals,” she said.
UH-Hilo will have more classes in-person in the fall than it has offered this year, Irwin said, and administrators are “hoping to reach the new normal by spring (2022).”
For “high-flex” classes — courses offered online and face-to-face simultaneously — she said the hope is to be able to accommodate more students face-to-face in the classroom.
“Students have expressed interest in our continuing to have some online courses because of the convenience in scheduling around work and family obligations,” Irwin said.
“If all continues to go well, we hope to return to spectators at athletic events, audiences at performing arts events, and an in-person commencement ceremony in December,” she said.
Email Stephanie Salmons at email@example.com.