Oregon Universities Are Weighing Whether to Mandate Student Vaccines for the Fall

Lewis & Clark College is the first in the state to announce it will do so.

By Aurora Biggers, Reina Harwood, and Julia Silverman April 21, 2021

Lewis & Clark College announced Wednesday that students would need a vaccine to return to campus in the fall, unless they qualify for an exemption.

Students at Lewis & Clark College, a small, prestigious private school in Southwest Portland, will have to show proof that they have been vaccinated in order to return to campus next fall, making the school the first higher education institution in Oregon to make that official.  

Lewis & Clark follows a growing number of universities nationwide that are mandating vaccination for the fall, but other Oregon colleges say they are still weighing the decision. 

“It's definitely something that we're talking about and monitoring,” says Christina Williams, a spokeswoman at Portland State University. “However, at this time, we're not planning to mandate vaccines for fall term when we're planning to be back on campus. We will, however, strongly encourage vaccines. We're looking at different proposals and incentives along those lines but nothing has been finalized yet."

The University of Oregon, the state’s flagship public university, said students will not need a vaccination to return to campus in the fall, but the Daily Emerald reports that the decision is still subject to change. (Portland Monthly also reached out to Oregon State University, but did not receive an answer by press time.) 

Reed College, in Southeast Portland, has a committee reviewing the question that’s yet to issue a recommendation, says Kevin Myers, a spokesman for the small liberal arts school; a recommendation is also forthcoming from Willamette University in Salem, says Sean Rossall, a university spokesman. At George Fox University in Newberg, the school is "currently highly encouraging our students and employees to pursue vaccination," according to a statement. Between 65 and 70 percent of employees are already vaccinated, the school added, and the expectation is that "nearly all" will receive their vaccine by the fall. 

In a note to Lewis & Clark students, vice president of Student Life Robin Holmes-Sullivan wrote that the mandatory vaccine would “allow us to return as much as possible to the pre-pandemic instruction and activities that are the hallmark of a Lewis & Clark education. Students can request an exemption for medical or non-medical reasons, as provided by Oregon and federal law,” Holmes-Sullivan wrote. 

Nationally, Rutgers University was the first higher education institution to announce that it would require students to be vaccinated in order to return in the fall. Some of the nation’s most prestigious schools have since followed their lead, including the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, Brown University in Rhode Island, and Cornell University in New York. 

In Oregon, residential colleges have been the source of significant outbreaks. According to a New York Times database, there have been 1,429 COVID-19 cases connected with the University of Oregon and 787 connected with OSU. Health officials have said that college cases can seep into communities; case numbers in Lane County ticked up, for example, after students returned to campus in September 2020. 

Consequences for not complying with the mandate are still evolving, but some universities are considering not allowing students to register for courses until they can prove they have been vaccinated, or not allowing them to move into on-campus housing. Others might choose to incentivize vaccines, or require unvaccinated students to be regularly tested for the virus. 

One outstanding question is whether complete remote learning options will continue to be possible for students who choose not to be vaccinated but do not qualify for a medical exemption. 

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