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Penn State professors teach on Zoom to protest lack of vaccine mandate

Both faculty and student groups, as well as State College Borough Council, have called on the university to require vaccines, but Penn State says it does not plan to alter its course.

Old Main is pictured on the Penn State University campus in State College, Pa., on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.
Old Main is pictured on the Penn State University campus in State College, Pa., on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Some Pennsylvania State University professors held their classes on Zoom Monday and Tuesday to protest the school’s lack of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students and staff, as the semester largely resumed in person this week.

“I want to protect myself and my family’s health,” said Evan Bradley, an associate professor of psychology and linguistics at Penn State’s Brandywine campus in Media. “I have kids at home who are too young to be vaccinated.”

The Zoom In, organized by the Coalition for a Just University, largely a faculty group, is the latest attempt to get Penn State to require students to have the COVID-19 vaccine to live on campus or attend classes. Coalition leaders said about 300 faculty participated; Penn State has about 7,000 full-time faculty on its 24 campuses and about 90,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

» READ MORE: Penn State faculty push for mandatory vaccinations

Faculty and student group leaders, as well as State College Borough Council, have called on the university to require vaccines as delta variant cases surge nationally, but Penn State leaders say they plan to continue to strongly encourage the vaccines and regularly test those who don’t show proof they have them.

That plan isn’t changing, even after the Food and Drug Administration gave final approval to the Pfizer vaccine on Monday.

“We think the FDA approval on the Pfizer vaccine will help ease the nervousness some feel about getting the vaccine and contribute to even higher vaccination rates in our community,” said university spokesperson Lawrence Lokman.

Ohio State University, a fierce Penn State rival, announced Tuesday it would require students and staff to be vaccinated, noting the Pfizer vaccine approval.

Lokman noted that 83% of students living on campus have provided proof of vaccination. Out of 14,000 students who moved into university housing last week, 2,639 had not yet provided proof and were tested. Eighteen tested positive, or about 0.7%, Lokman said.

Many private universities in the region, including Villanova, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel and St. Joseph’s, and Rutgers University, New Jersey’s public flagship, have required the vaccines. But the 14 universities in Pennsylvania’s state system say they don’t have legal authority to mandate them and Penn State, which is partially public, has been reluctant. Penn State president Eric J. Barron even noted the political landscape in Pennsylvania, where the majority Republican legislature has been against a vaccine mandate, in explaining the university’s stance on vaccines in an Aug. 12 letter.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania's state colleges say they can't require COVID-19 vaccines

“State funding of our university requires a two-thirds vote of the Pennsylvania legislature, meaning that our funding relies on strong bipartisan support,” Barron wrote.

Temple University, also partially public, had not mandated the shots either, but the city of Philadelphia issued a requirement for all universities, so now Temple students and staff must comply by mid-October.

» READ MORE: Health-care and higher education workers, students must get vaccinated by mid-October, Philadelphia announces

At West Chester University, the largest in Pennsylvania’s state system, a group of about 300 faculty wrote a letter to president Christopher Fiorentino this week, calling on him to issue a mandate for those participating in indoor activities.

“We understand the political complexity of issuing a mandate our legislature has made clear it does not support,” they wrote. “ … we are asking you to take a stand for the obvious right thing to do and challenge opponents to make a real argument for why we shouldn’t.”

Fiorentino said he understands the concerns.

“As I have said publicly, I would mandate vaccinations if I could, but I absolutely do not have the legal authority to do so,” he said.

Seth Kahn, a West Chester English professor, said the group is also reaching out to local government leaders to see if they can put a requirement in place for West Chester, similar to what Philadelphia did.

“We’re going to be back in classrooms next Monday,” he said. “This can’t happen fast enough.”

Rowan University, a public college in New Jersey, said Tuesday that it was changing its policy based on the Pfizer approval. The college had been allowing students to opt out of vaccination for personal reasons but said it will no longer accept that reason. Students must get their first shot by Sept. 7 unless they have a medical or religious exemption, said Joe Cardona, a university spokesperson.

At Penn State, local governmental leaders also are worried about the school’s decision to allow 107,000 fans back into Beaver Stadium without proof of vaccination or a mask mandate.

Jesse Barlow, president of State College borough council, called the move “insane.”

“We’re scared out of our gourd about it,” he said.

State College grows dramatically each year as more than 40,000 students return to University Park, and local leader are worried about potential outbreaks.

Barlow, a longtime computer science and engineering professor at Penn State, participated in the Zoom In and taught his class remotely this week.

Penn State said it also has been hearing from those who oppose a vaccine mandate and the masking policy. The university said this week that some parents and students, including the Penn State Parents Council, have complained about professors not teaching in person during the Zoom In.

“We are comfortable that the efforts the university has taken including cleaning protocols, masking requirements, vaccine recommendations, and testing policies will keep the campus community as safe as possible,” the council wrote.

The university warned in a statement that Penn State professors who do not meet their obligations to teach in person may be subject to disciplinary sanctions.

Valerie Braman, a faculty member and spokesperson for the coalition, said professors believe they are well within their rights, given that the university allows up to 24% of a class to be delivered remotely and still be considered in person.

Bradley, the Brandywine professor, said he plans to return to in-person teaching this week, but he also will allow students to tune in via Zoom.

“I don’t want them to have to choose between sacrificing their health,” he said, “and sacrificing their learning.”