University of Kansas students, faculty and staff members called on administrators to mandate vaccines on campus during a rally Sunday, expressing concerns about the ongoing surge of the delta variant of COVID-19.
Nearly 40 people gathered at the university’s Wescoe Beach to push back on the administration’s reluctance to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine for individuals on campus this year. The rally was hosted by the Vaccinate KU coalition, which formed this summer with a Change.org petition urging KU to require vaccines. The petition has garnered 1,118 signatures since it was posted on July 18.
Vaccinate KU presented a list of 11 recommendations to the chiefs of staff for KU chancellor Douglas Girod and provost Barbara Bichelmeyer at the start of the school year, said the coalition’s founder, Sophie Kunin, a senior at KU. Kunin scheduled the Vaccinate KU rally in the shadow of Strong Hall, where Girod, Bichelmeyer and other administrators have offices, because none of the recommendations was implemented.
“The university needs to recognize that by not taking on this list of safety precautions, they’re putting KU and the Lawrence community at risk,” Kunin said at the rally. “Today is a day to recognize other perspectives and to discuss what we need to do at KU to keep our community safe. This rally is about the safety of everyone.”
The recommendations made to KU include requiring masks on campus until 80% of students are vaccinated, implementing social distancing requirements on campus and creating an office for contact tracing.
Despite several schools across the country who have mandated vaccines on campus, such as the University of Indiana and the California State Universities system, KU has not required vaccines on campus because “state law limits our ability to require vaccination or proof of vaccination,” said KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, responding to an inquiry for this story via email.
The state statute Barcomb-Peterson cited prohibits state buildings from requiring a COVID-19 “vaccination passport” for entrance.
KU requires all students to have a measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine before arriving on campus and requires all students living in university housing to have a meningitis vaccine before moving in.
Advocates for an on-campus COVID-19 vaccine mandate included professors, graduate teaching assistants and students who are worried of contracting the coronavirus in classrooms. Many who spoke urged KU to push against the Legislature to protect the KU community and surrounding Lawrence community.
“Suing the state for the ability to mandate a vaccine could save KU, would save lives, and it won’t put any target on our back as an institution that wasn’t already there,” said Elise Higgins, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department for Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at KU. “Vaccine mandates can lower COVID rates, and if our Legislature won’t protect us, you can at least try to do it yourselves.”
Professors and students shared stories of fear as they and those in their classrooms began contracting the coronavirus in the 2020-2021 school year, but were unable to know the extent to which the spread occurred because of a state statute barring KU from conducting its own contact tracing.
Since Aug. 1, 2020, 1,824 people at KU have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to KU’s COVID-19 dashboard. In the week of Sept. 2, 12 people on campus tested positive for the coronavirus.
Andrew Kustodowicz, president of the Graduate Teaching Assistant Coalition, said professors and GTAs were forced to return to in-person learning, despite the GTA union’s formal request to require vaccinations before returning to the classroom.
“I think what’s really unfortunate is that KU’s administration has kind of weaponized the overwhelming majority of people’s desires to be back on campus,” Kustodowicz said. “GTAs, while we did excellent work on Zoom, ultimately, we want to be in the classroom. But when KU said, ‘You will be in the classroom, there will be no vaccine mandate and you cannot choose to protect yourself,’ that became an unacceptable working condition.”
GTAC called a meeting as part of its ongoing contract negotiations with KU where members asked for flexibility in how they could safely instruct classes if vaccines weren’t required, Kustodowicz said. KU denied a request to choose how classes would be conducted, he said.
Student body president Niya McAdoo said the Student Senate office has had informal talks about on-campus vaccine mandates, and she and her administration are prioritizing protecting students’ livelihoods.
“People are still dying every day from COVID. We’re not out of the pandemic,” McAdoo said at the rally. “Obviously, vaccination has helped, but it hasn’t solved the issue 100%, so we have to continue to work together to show up for each other and show up for the greater community. If we don’t do it, a lot of other people won’t do it for us.”
Although the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Aug. 23, Barcomb-Peterson said KU is still unable to mandate vaccinations. No universities in Kansas have moved to require vaccines for its students, faculty and staff.
KU rescinded its mask mandate on May 27 after recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear masks. On Aug. 6, KU said it would again require masks for the 2021-22 school year because of a surge in the highly contagious delta variant forcing the CDC to revise its mask recommendations.
Naomi Madu, a senior from Abuja, Nigeria, studying strategic communication, said her family members have little access to vaccines in Nigeria. Only 2.3% of people in Nigeria have been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization.
“I don’t know how to explain to (my family) that the country with the most vaccines in the world has the least regard for human life,” Madu said at the rally. “There’s no reason for us to still be here, and it’s unbelievably reckless that this university has adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach while new variants continue to ravage marginalized communities in this country.”
To urge students to get vaccinated, KU is offering prizes for students who upload their vaccination cards to their Watkins Health Center patient portal. Prizes include a full semester’s tuition, $5,000 in cash, $1,000 in dining dollars and a free campus parking pass.
“If we are capable of grasping the gravity of this situation we’re in,” Madu said, “our educators and administrators should be able to grasp that as well, and I hope they understand that our lives are worth more than $230,000 in prize money.”
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