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Penn State implements vaccine mandate for faculty and staff on its main campus

The decision will impact about 22,000 employees on the university’s main campus in Centre County — but doesn’t apply to students at this time.

Old Main is pictured on the Penn State University campus in State College.
Old Main is pictured on the Penn State University campus in State College.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania State University announced Tuesday that the roughly 22,000 faculty and staff at the university’s main campus must show proof of coronavirus vaccination by Dec. 8 — even if they are working remotely.

The announcement from Penn State president Eric Barron comes more than a month after President Joe Biden implemented a vaccine mandate for federal employees. Barron said the university holds more than 1,000 contracts at its University Park campus in Centre County alone, and he couched the new mandate as a necessary compliance measure to protect federal employees.

“For all practical intents and purposes, it has become evident that we must extend the mandate to all employees at University Park,” Barron said in a statement. “The great majority of Penn State employees report being vaccinated, which will accelerate compliance.”

The new measure doesn’t extend to Penn State’s other campuses — such as Abington and Brandywine — at this time. Barron said university leaders are “closely reviewing the Biden administration’s mandate and how it may apply to employees at other campuses and locations.”

University leaders deflected calls for a vaccine mandate well before Biden’s executive order, even as other schools established policies for faculty and staff.

The decision also follows months of pushback from staff over the lack of a vaccine mandate. In August, when the university resumed in-person classes, some professors protested by holding classes on Zoom.

The Coalition for a Just University, a faculty group that has been pressuring the university to require vaccines for months, said Tuesday’s decision came too late and questioned the motivations behind it.

“Many of our faculty, staff, students, and community members have suffered because this administration has done the absolute minimum as required by law at the last possible moment,” the coalition said in a statement Tuesday. “This announcement appears designed to maintain funding as opposed to protect public health and safety.”

» READ MORE: The vaccination debate on college campuses. A mandate or not?

Kelly Wolgast, director the university’s COVID-19 Operations Control Center, disputed that characterization and said the university’s decision-making has been methodical.

“The health and safety of our faculty and students have always been the top priority,” Wolgast said, “and our processes so far have continued to work.”

Wolgast said viral spread on campus has been limited despite the surging delta variant. Penn State’s COVID-19 data dashboard indicates that, among the 10,000 coronavirus tests administered on campus statewide, less than 1% came back positive.

Still, thousands of coronavirus cases have erupted across Penn State’s two dozen campuses since last year. At least two students died from coronavirus-related complications prior to the university’s return to campus for the fall semester.

Penn State is the largest university in Pennsylvania, employing about 7,000 full-time faculty and enrolling some 90,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

The mandate does not extend to students — 40,000 of whom are enrolled at the University Park campus — unless they’re on university payroll, such as teaching assistants. Wolgast said school officials are not considering a vaccine requirement at this time for students, about 83% of whom are currently vaccinated, according to the university’s data dashboard.

Unvaccinated faculty and staff at the main campus must receive their final dose of the vaccine by Nov. 24 to meet the Dec. 8 deadline. More information on medical and religious exemptions for faculty and staff is forthcoming, Barron said.

Teamsters Local Union No. 8, which represents about 2,500 maintenance, hospitality, and landscaping workers at Penn State, took issue with the new mandate.

Union president Jonathan Light said the university met with union officials last week about the possibility of a mandate but didn’t inform them of the new policy until shortly before the announcement went out.

Light could not provide an estimate of how many union members remain unvaccinated but said a “large volume” of them were outraged.

“People are going to have to make difficult choices between what they believe in and feeding their families,” Light said.

The union clashed with university leadership over a mask mandate this summer but eventually reached an agreement. Light said he would seek a solution for his vaccine-reluctant members, but this time, the federal executive order on vaccinations gives the union less negotiating power.