KU students, faculty call for COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Nearly 40 people gathered at KU to push administrators to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine on campus.


State News

September 13, 2021 - 9:04 AM

Students, faculty and staff members rally Sunday in front of Wescoe Hall on the University of Kansas campus to call on administrators to impose a vaccine mandate on campus. Photo by (Lucy Peterson for Kansas Reflector)

LAWRENCE — 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.