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West Chester will randomly test students who don’t submit proof of vaccination

Earlier this month, the university had said it did not plan to test students who didn’t voluntarily submit proof of vaccination, but then received updated legal guidance that it could.

West Chester University Golden Rams banners on the campus on Aug. 5, 2020.
West Chester University Golden Rams banners on the campus on Aug. 5, 2020.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

West Chester University this week announced it would subject students who don’t submit proof of vaccination to random testing for COVID-19.

Earlier this month, the university had said it did not plan to test students who didn’t voluntarily submit proof of vaccination, but then learned that other universities in the system were doing it and got updated guidance from legal counsel that it could, too.

“If this is possible, of course we want to do it,” said Zebulun R. Davenport, vice president for student affairs.

The testing requirement is for students living on campus and those living off campus will be asked to participate, the university said. Students will begin moving back onto campus next week; classes start later this month. The university also is requiring everyone, vaccinated or not, to wear masks indoors.

Faculty had been calling on the university to require testing and on the system to push for the authority to mandate vaccination.

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

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, of which West Chester is the largest of 14 universities, has said its schools don’t have the legal authority to require the COVID-19 vaccine.

But other universities in the system including Bloomsburg, Slippery Rock, California, Millersville, Mansfield, Cheyney, and Edinboro had told The Inquirer last week that they will require proof of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test, or proof students had COVID-19 in the last three months to move into residence halls. East Stroudsburg University had said it will require random weekly testing for students living in residence halls, using the recreation center, or participating in club sports if they have not shared proof of vaccination.

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

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Mark Rimple, outgoing president of West Chester’s faculty union, said of the university’s new plan. “Our leadership has their hands tied legally or they would do more.”

Davenport said Tuesday that only one day after the university announced the random testing for those without proof of vaccination, more than 2,800 of the school’s more than 17,000 students had uploaded their information. West Chester will conduct the testing in its health center and it will continue throughout the semester, he said.

“We have ramped up our nurses so that we can be prepared to do the testing,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to keep our community safe.”

At West Chester, students who submit proof of vaccination will be entered into a drawing for scholarships. The university will be giving away two $2,500 scholarships and one $5,000 scholarship. And students receiving their first dose of vaccine between now and Aug. 30 will be entered into another drawing for $5,000, the university said.

Other universities including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, St. Joseph’s, Villanova, and Rutgers in New Jersey have mandated the vaccines.

» READ MORE: Rutgers becomes first college in the region, possibly the nation, to require students to get COVID-19 vaccinations

On Tuesday, the Children’s Health Defense along with 18 students filed a federal lawsuit against Rutgers over the mandate for students. The group called the mandate “an affront to human dignity and personal freedom because it violates our basic right to control our bodies.”

Rutgers stood by its decision and said it had the legal authority to issue the mandate.

“We are committed to creating a safe campus environment in fall 2021, and to support the health and safety for all members of the Rutgers community, the university updated its existing immunization requirements for students to include the COVID-19 vaccine,” the university said in a statement.