By Andres Picon and Danya Perez, Staff writers
Administrators at San Antonio’s colleges and universities say they have no plans to require students and employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus this fall.
More than 100 higher education institutions across the country plan to impose such a mandate, but university officials here say they don’t think it will be needed, given Bexar County’s relatively high vaccination rates.
And even if they wanted to, they said, an April executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott won’t let them.
“Our faculty, staff and students respond pretty well to doing what’s in the public good, what’s good for the community, so I’m not sure that we think that it would have been productive to require it,” said Diane Melby, president of Our Lady of the Lake University. “We weren’t seeing it as something that we needed to take a strong stand on.”
San Antonio’s universities have worked to make vaccination opportunities easily available, helping students and employees with appointments or hosting their own clinics. The more people are vaccinated, the less likely COVID-19 outbreaks on campus become, officials said.
“We hope that by describing the benefits of vaccination to each person’s personal health and to the conditions of our community, that that would be enough to convince students to do what’s best for Trinity and for themselves,” said Tess Coody-Anders, Trinity University’s vice president for strategic communication and marketing.
Administrators say they have confidence that enough students and employees will get vaccinated on their own. By late this week, more than 60 percent of Bexar County residents have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine and about 43 percent are fully vaccinated. Those figures are higher than state and national averages.
The current immunization rates, coupled with continuous guidance and input from local, state and federal health officials, add to this confidence, said Joe Izbrand, associate vice president for strategic communications and external affairs at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“We believe the safety precautions we are planning for the Fall semester are appropriate to ensure the health and well-being of our community,” Izbrand said in a written statement. “This includes masking, social distancing, ongoing cleaning and disinfection, and the availability of hybrid and online instruction.”
University leaders also are trying to convince the holdouts. Overall demand for the vaccines has slowed due to worries about the speed with which they were developed and authorized, the possibility of side effects and objections for religious or medical reasons.
“We know that individuals everywhere, including in our own community, will have hesitation to the vaccine,” said Glenn James, vice provost at the University of the Incarnate Word. “So we are going to strongly recommend it, because the data shows that it helps prevent (COVID-19).
“At the same time, we are going to be very loving and supportive of folks who decline.”
One consideration among university officials has been whether requiring vaccines makes sense when less invasive safety protocols like mask wearing and social distancing have proven effective at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
“At the moment it doesn’t,” James said. “And we have that confidence because those other mitigations work … In the ethical decision making, it’s worth that tradeoff.”
In early April, Abbott signed an executive order prohibiting public and private entities receiving state funds from requiring vaccines as a condition for providing services or access to facilities. Republican state officials cast it as a way to protect Texans’ private health information and individual rights.
Several area university officials said the executive order effectively bars them from requiring vaccinations but that it made little difference on their decision-making.
“We were already leaning in the direction of just encouraging,” said Tom Mengler, president of St. Mary’s University.
Kathryn Funk-Baxter, vice president of business affairs at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, added, “We’re a state agency, so we’re going to follow the mandate in the executive order and we don’t have a problem with that.”
Mengler said that even with a vaccine requirement, there would have to be exceptions, which could serve as loopholes and render the policy ineffective. He pointed to the vaccine mandate that St. Edward’s University in Austin is planning for the fall, which allows exemptions for medical and religious reasons and for anyone concerned about vaccines’ emergency authorization status.
“I think you can drive a truck through that exception,” Mengler said.
Earlier this year, St. Mary’s surveyed faculty and staff and found that among the more than 60 percent who responded, 97.5 percent said they were fully vaccinated or were planning to be vaccinated.
At Trinity, where more than 60 percent of employees are already fully vaccinated, officials hope that the majority of those who will be living, working and studying on campus will get their shots by the end of summer. Plans for a fall reopening are tied to vaccination rates and a continuous evaluation of the virus in the community.
Trinity’s goal of returning to full in-person learning, full occupancy at residence halls, and in-person group activities is contingent on having at least 71 percent of the campus population fully vaccinated. Masks likely will be required indoors, but other protocols such as mandatory testing would be eased.
In their efforts to get the shots in more people’s arms, some universities are offering incentives to students — from gift card giveaways to exemption from certain coronavirus testing or quarantining policies.
“We are encouraging vaccines in our communications with people, trying to really help people understand that they’re the safest course of action for themselves and for their family members,” Melby said.
Trinity has also recruited older students and student leaders to encourage their peers to get vaccinated and remind them of the benefits.
With vaccination rates climbing in the community and among their students and employees, university leaders are optimistic.
“I think this will allow us to proceed strongly with community support, to have in-person instruction, gatherings inside and outside on our St. Mary’s campus,” Mengler said. “All of the things that everyone wants to see come back to their institutions, we’ll be able to do.”
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