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COVID-19 vaccinations required for fall term at Southern Oregon University

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Southern Oregon University students Ethan Blair and Mackenzie Waggoner take a break Thursday from class on campus in Ashland

Southern Oregon University announced Thursday that it will require COVID-19 vaccinations next fall for all students and employees, joining a growing list of Oregon colleges to take that step in recent weeks.

According to a news release from the university, the decision was informed by guidance from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s office and the Oregon Health Authority. Also factoring into the move were meetings with student and employee groups on campus impacted by a requirement that had previously been announced by several colleges, including Oregon State University, University of Oregon, Western Oregon University and Willamette University.

SOU President Linda Schott said the school had been talking for months with Oregon’s other public universities about the possibility of requiring the COVID-19 vaccine, but elected not to pull the trigger until after receiving input from its campus community.

“I think SOU prides itself on doing things a little bit differently,” Schott said, “and what we do differently is really take the time to talk to our constituents on campus — to check in with our union leadership, to check in with our faculty senate, our student government — before we announce a decision. So we’ve been taking the time to have those kinds of conversations.”

Ultimately, Schott added, the decision was her call to make, though she worked closely with her cabinet before falling in line with other universities in the region. Did the vaccine requirements announced by those schools push SOU over the tipping point? Schott said that was only part of her reasoning.

“The timing is also really more driven for us around the fact that students are starting to register for the fall term,” she said. “It may seem like it’s a long way off, but they register now for fall, and we wanted them to have some certainty — and for our faculty to have some certainty — about what the conditions are going to be when they come back in the fall term.”

Schott said her cabinet talked with the SOU student government about the possibility of requiring the vaccine a week and a half ago, and that SOU’s vice president for enrollment, management and student affairs, Neil Woolf, attended a student government meeting Tuesday to discus the issue.

The vast majority of those who were consulted, Schott said, wanted the vaccine to be made mandatory in the fall.

“All of the groups that we talked to were strongly in support,” she said. “Having said that, of course, there are individuals (who disagree), and we’ve received a few emails and phone calls to my office from individuals who have concerns one way or the other — I mean, we’ve gotten calls saying, ‘Why aren’t you requiring vaccinations?’ and one saying, ‘If you’re going to do that, why?’

“I want to hear what people have to say, but ultimately we have to be guided by public health and by what our state is indicating, and the governor’s office has been fairly clear that they want colleges and universities to require vaccinations. They’re not mandating it but they are encouraging it.”

Plenty of questions regarding COVID-19 vaccine requirements on college campuses have yet to be answered, and Schott indicated that SOU still must determine how it will enforce the requirement, and what the school will do if at least one of the vaccines does not receive permanent use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by the start of the fall term — emergency use authorization has been issued to several COVID-19 vaccine developers.

“That’s one of those things to be worked out, but we’ve been told that at least one should have permanent authorization by July,” Schott said. “But that’s still one of these questions that’s up in the air for us: How will we handle that if it hasn’t moved to permanent use?”

Oregon law also allows for medical and nonmedical exemptions for vaccinations, and Schott said SOU will obey the law. How those exemptions will be processed, however, is still a mystery.

“That’s all to be figured out,” she said. “Will we take somebody’s word for it? Will we require them to sign something? Those are the kinds of details we have not worked out yet.”

SOU’s public relations office said data regarding how many staffers have been vaccinated is not available. Schott said based on the general enthusiasm for the COVID-19 vaccine she’s seen on campus she believes the “vast majority” of employees have likely been vaccinated already.

“So we know there are a few who have concerns,” she said, “but on the whole the faculty has been like, ‘When are you going to require vaccinations?’ They feel more confident about being back in the classroom if they know that the people who will be in the classroom with them have been vaccinated.”

SOU revealed its new vaccine policy only hours after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear masks or practice social distancing indoors or outdoors, except under certain circumstances. Schott said SOU will have to wait for more local guidance before lifting its mask requirements.

“Yes, it’s a possibility,” she said. “What we had been told up until today was that we could expect to resume pretty much normal activities without social distancing but masks may still be required. Even the CDC guidance said we still need to follow state guidance and local guidance. So we have to wait and see what happens in our local region and certainly what the state of Oregon does.

“And just looking at it today I thought, ‘Well, how will we know if somebody’s been vaccinated?’ There’s a lot to be discussed, and we’ll just have to take our time to work our way through it thoughtfully.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.