St. Olaf College plans to announce in July if it will require all students without a legally valid medical or religious exemption to be vaccinated before coming back to campus in the fall of 2021. The question of whether or not to require students on college campuses to be vaccinated has become a national debate, with the advice of public health professionals pitted against political positioning. Within the vaccination debate, St. Olaf plans to wait for more colleges to make their decisions and then respond accordingly.
The American College Health Association has recommended that colleges require returning students for the 2021 — 2022 academic year to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. However, for St. Olaf College President David Anderson ’74 and the College’s COVID-19 response team there remain questions to be answered before they make a decision.
“We’ve never really been the college that acted first,” Anderson said. “And we’ve never been the college that acted last. We have a sort of lurking in the tall grass strategy, where we want to have as much information as we can get and then make what we think is the best decision.”
Some of the information Anderson is waiting on includes what other colleges are doing, how many people will be vaccinated and the legal status of the vaccines.
“Is it even possible to require vaccination?,” Anderson said. COVID-19 vaccinations are currently emergency use authorized, and as such cannot currently be required by institutions. Schools including Carleton and Macalester have released statements of intent to require vaccinations, pending FDA approval. However, even if COVID-19 vaccines gain FDA approval, Anderson and the COVID-19 response team are not sure if the work required to mandate vaccination is worth it.
The hassle of requiring vaccination, according to Anderson, includes determining what proof of vaccination would be required as well as “what’s gonna happen when we have a bunch of international students coming when there is maybe limited availability in their home country,” Anderson said.
Carleton College and Macalester College both have a higher percentage of international students than St. Olaf.
Furthermore, Anderson said “Do we really want to get into a bunch of fights with people who, for reasons good or bad, just don’t want to have the vaccine.”
“It’s not 100% clear what the benefit is in having 95% of your population vaccinated and a 100% [vaccinated],” Anderson said. “You could say, well it’s 5%. But in practical terms are you that much safer? If you could get to 95% of people voluntarily vaccinating and reporting, then you want to ask the question, is it really worth all of the hassle of requiring it of everybody?”
In a report emailed to students on Thursday, May 13, Campus Reopening Lead Enoch Blazis wrote that “73% of St. Olaf faculty and staff and 70% of students have reported that they are fully vaccinated or in the process of being vaccinated.”
The St. Olaf community has had the opportunity to be vaccinated through a variety of community based vaccine clinics, as well as multiple on-campus clinics. The most recent on-campus clinic had 468 shots that no one signed up for, which were returned to the Northfield Urgent Care clinic.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic Minnesota college presidents have met frequently, and “obviously [vaccination] has been a topic that’s had a lot of conversation,” Anderson said.
Currently Carleton and Macalester are the only colleges or universities in Minnesota that have announced that they intend to require vaccinations for the 2021-2022 school year. St. Catherine University and Minnesota State University – Mankato have announced that they do not intend to require COVID vaccinations in the fall at this time.
As for St. Olaf, “We don’t need to make a decision right now,” Anderson said. “We’re waiting to see what other institutions do, we’re waiting to see what the landscape looks like in terms of total vaccination, we’re waiting to see what percentage of our students and other community members have been vaccinated, and we’ll make a decision in time for whatever we decide to do to be carried out.”