Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus sent out an email to all students and prospective students on April 2 announcing that everyone enrolling at FLC for the Fall 2021 semester will be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
In the email, Stiritkus wrote that this requirement is in order to protect the FLC community and get things back to normal, such as participating in group work in classrooms, attending sporting events and spending time together in the Student Union.
According to Stritikus and The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fort Lewis College is just one of 14 institutions in the country that have decided to require students to be vaccinated in order to enroll this fall, as of April 6.
When making the decision to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory, Stitikus consulted with the public health team that has been working closely on campus to manage coronavirus, the Provost, the Vice President for Finance and Administration, the Student Body President and Vice President, the President of the Faculty Senate and the Chair of Staff Council, Stritikus said in an interview with The Independent.
“But the decision was ultimately mine,” Stitikus said.
FLC Student Body President Carson Ingram and Vice President Sophie Schwartz both said that Stritikus did consult with them after the mandate had gone through all the necessary legalities that it needed to be released, they said in a group call interview.
Stritikus asked Ingram and Schwartz if they thought it was a good idea and if they had any suggestions or questions, Schwartz said.
Ingram and Schwartz had no objections to the vaccine mandate, but felt it was important to make sure that students had the option to file for an exemption for not only medical reasons but nonmedical reasons too, they said.
Students are able to file for an exemption of the vaccine, just like they could for other vaccinations, Stirikus said. However, these students will then be required to get weekly covid testing, he said. The forms to file for an exemption can be found on the FLC website.
Schwartz said she was in favor of the vaccine mandate because she thinks it will help the overall mental health of students, she said.
“Getting vaccinated and community care isn't just about returning to normal and getting to hang out with our friends,” she said. “All that kind of stuff is important, but it's important for people who maybe struggle with mental health and have a lack of community support during the pandemic.”
In addition to mental health, Schwartz and Ingram both said that the vaccine mandate has the potential to make education more accessible to students through more in-person classes, office hours and peer dialogue, they said.
“I definitely feel the shift online has affected my academic progress,” Ingram said. “It’s not the best way that I feel I learn, and many other students feel that way as well.”
While the intentions behind this vaccine requirement may be good, there have been some student concerns, Stritikus said.
The Independent ran a 24-hour poll on its Instagram account asking the public whether they agreed or disagreed with the vaccine mandate. 44 users voted for it and 16 voted against it. As far as the written responses go, most people’s responses were in support of the vaccine mandate, while others wrote concerns about it being authoritarian and unethical as the vaccine has not yet been FDA approved. This poll cannot accurately represent the student body at large, but rather offers a snapshot of those Instagram followers who chose to respond.
Another example of these concerns comes from Kyle Collins, a computer information systems major, who wrote a post on April 2, shortly after Stritikus announced the mandate, on the FLC app that explained his opinion on the mandate being an abuse of authority and sought for other students to contact him if they felt the same way.
Collins believes that the mandate is an abuse of authority because the student body should have been involved in making the decision, rather than being informed about the mandate after the decision was already made, he said.
Collins is choosing not to get vaccinated because he does not feel safe about the potential effects it could have on his health, as the vaccine has been developed so recently, he said.
In response to the option to file an exemption, Collins argued that that should not be the default.
“The default should be, you choose if you want it and you make your own decision as an adult,” he said. “We're critical thinking adults that have been educated by our tax dollars, we should be able to decide and make an informed decision about what we put in or not into our bodies.”
Collins believes that there are other students who feel similarly to how he does but are afraid to be outspoken because of criticism, or being labeled something, he said.
In response to this, Ingram and Carson both agreed that students should be safe and comfortable enough to voice their honest opinions about the vaccine, they said.
“I think having an opinion about the vaccine, or especially having a reservation about the vaccine is not a bad thing,” Schwartz said. “We'll only be better for it if people continue to share their ideas, their opinions, their feelings, especially on the vaccine.”
Ingram agreed that their feelings are valid, and that he, Schwartz and all the senators are always willing to sit down and talk to students about the vaccine to make sure they feel okay and taken care of, he said.
“Our job as student government is to represent the students, every single one,” he said.
Schwartz added that despite what someone’s opinion is on the vaccine, they should avoid villainizing or demonizing the people who feel differently than they do, as making these decisions about their health is not easy, she said.
On April 9, FLC hosted a vaccine clinic where students could get the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, as long as they were older than 18. Then, on April 12, a joint CDC and FDA statement on Johnson & Johnson released information about that specific COVID-19 vaccine causing blood clots in six individuals, out of the 6.8 million who have received that vaccine.
Stritikus said that while this news may increase hesitancy to get vaccinated, it is important for students to realize how rare blood clotting like this is, and that it is a good thing that the CDC is being so transparent about its findings, he said.
Moving forward, FLC will take the steps to offer both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in place of the Johnson and Johnson, Stritikus said.
Stritikus advises students to continue to stay educated about the vaccine as the research continues, he said.