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Penn State faculty push for mandatory vaccinations days after a second student dies

As coronavirus cases mount again, faculty at Pennsylvania State University are calling on the administration to require all students and staff to be vaccinated before they return for the fall.

Penn State campus
Penn State campusRead moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

As coronavirus cases again rise, faculty at Pennsylvania State University are calling on the administration to require all students and staff to be vaccinated before they return for the fall semester.

“More than 600 universities and colleges in the U.S. have implemented a COVID-19 vaccination requirement,” the Coalition for a Just University, a faculty group long critical of the university’s handling of the coronavirus, said Tuesday in a statement. “But Penn State is not among them. Instead, the Penn State administration has merely encouraged students to get vaccinated and offered incentives for vaccination.”

The group’s urging comes as the delta variant has fueled a surge in cases and follows the death last weekend of a second Penn State student from coronavirus-related complications. Neil Patel, 20, a finance major from Upper Merion and a member of Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College, died after a months-long hospital stay and battle against the virus, according to a post his father wrote on a GoFundMe page for his son Sunday.

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

At a town-hall meeting Tuesday, Penn State leaders affirmed their decision not to mandate vaccination but said they would require unvaccinated students and staff members to be regularly tested for the virus or face penalties, which include warnings and sanctions, including suspension.. Unvaccinated students will be tested before they move into the residence halls this month and every week after that, said Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs.

University officials also said unvaccinated people would be required to wear masks indoors and vaccinated people would be strongly encouraged to do the same. In areas with high transmission of the virus, everyone will be required to wear masks indoors, they said.

While not requiring vaccination, president Eric Barron asserted that the university wants everyone to be vaccinated and said the success of the fall semester depends on it.

“Let me be clear,” he said. “Penn State is not impartial when it comes to getting vaccinated. ... Getting vaccinated is the single best way to protect yourself and our community from serious illness.”

Shortly after the town hall, the faculty coalition said the university’s plan failed to address many of their requests, including providing remote learning options for those concerned about the virus and requiring everyone to wear masks, even those who had been vaccinated.

“This is not enough,” said Valerie Braman, a faculty member and spokesperson for the group.

The university intends to go forward with plans to bring tens of thousands of students back to campus in a few weeks and hold most of its classes in person — 95% at its University Park classes in person and 88% at its other campuses around the commonwealth.

At a board of trustees meeting this summer, Barron said the university would keep in place many of its COVID-19 mitigation efforts from last year. That includes a public dashboard — where case numbers are recorded — as well as quarantine space and the testing of waste water for the virus.

The University Park campus, with more than 40,000 students, saw thousands of coronavirus cases last year but did not shut down. The university’s dorms were about three-quarters filled and the school held a mix of in-person and remote classes.

Vaccination policies at area campuses vary. Some — including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Villanova, Widener, Cabrini, Neumann, the College of New Jersey, and Princeton — are requiring both students and employees to be vaccinated. Others have issued the mandate just for students.

Temple, Penn State, and the 14 schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education aren’t requiring vaccines at all, just strongly encouraging them. The state system has said there is no legislation that specifically enables it to require the vaccine. But state universities in other states, including Rutgers in New Jersey, have done so. Indiana University also issued a requirement that withstood a court challenge.

» READ MORE: Penn will require faculty and staff, along with students, to be vaccinated

A Penn State spokesperson said in June: “We think an incentives-based approach offers the best, most pragmatic way to encourage high rates of vaccination.” The university has offered drawings with cash prizes, gift cards, and footballs autographed by coach James Franklin to students and employees who upload their vaccination cards.

During the town hall, university officials said 56% of employees responded to a survey on their vaccination status. Of those, 92% said they were vaccinated. Of students, 42% of the more than 87,000 surveyed responded, with more than three-quarters saying they were vaccinated.

Both the undergraduate student government and the university faculty senate at Penn State have urged the university to require vaccines. The graduate and professional student association has also called for vaccines to be mandated. The coalition added its voice this week in a letter signed by more than 800 faculty from multiple Penn State campuses.

The group said in addition to requiring vaccines, Penn State also should continue to require social distancing, conduct random surveillance testing, improve ventilation standards, and offer more flexible teaching and learning guidelines.

“As the parent of a child too young to be vaccinated, I am extremely nervous about a return to campus in the fall,” Tracy Rutler, assistant professor of French and Francophone studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, said in the group’s statement.

She noted that Patel, the student who died, was one of her students.

“I do not want this for myself, my family, my colleagues, or my students,” she said. “We must require vaccines and rethink our approach to the fall semester.”

Chet Patel wrote that his son, a drummer, guitarist, and baseball player, had been studying remotely during the last academic year. He tried to get the vaccine but had been rejected at the Convention Center in Philadelphia. He finally was able to schedule a vaccine, but it was too late. He had contracted the coronavirus while working a service job to help pay for a planned summer educational trip to France.

Patel was hospitalized in April, placed on a ventilator, underwent surgery, and lost an arm to amputation during his lengthy battle, his father wrote.

The Upper Merion Area School Board noted his death at its meeting Monday night and Penn State expressed its condolences in a statement. (Another Penn State student, Juan Garcia of Allentown, died of coronavirus-related complications last year.)

The GoFundMe page that was started in April has raised nearly $88,000. “Our son and my dear boy has moved on to his next journey,” Patel wrote Sunday. “Neil fought his illness like a brave knight ... just as I had raised him to be.”