Asthe region meets loosening COVID restrictions with varying combinations of eagerness and caution, schools, too, continue adopting health and safety standards that have them looking more and more like their pre-pandemic selves.
Meanwhile, area colleges have to consider not only classroom capacities and close quarters but also those of their residence and dining areas. The majority of the student body might not be among high-risk populations, but the same isn’t true of staff, visiting community members or any other older individuals in close proximity of campus, to say nothing of staff and student’s family members.
Their responsibility to ensure a healthy environment at all times was not one they regarded lightly—and they ask their communities to be similarly respectful of others.
“The primary consideration is the health and safety of students, faculty and staff, especially with the return to mostly in-person teaching in fall 2021,” confirms Stockton University Chief Planning Officer and Deputy Chief of Staff Peter Baratta. “Other considerations included precautions and/or restrictions for students living in on-campus housing, class sizes in the fall, and legal and contractual requirements. … There is also an understanding among students, faculty and staff that some necessary health and safety precautions may still be in place based on state and federal guidelines.”
To manage the gradual return to normal and avoid a backslide potentially born of overzealous re-openings, the region’s colleges and universities have developed and accordingly adjusted their individual pandemic plans. And as vaccines became more readily available in South Jersey, colleges have responded with a range of vaccination requirements, if any at all.
At Rutgers University–Camden, the school has required all of its students to get the full course of COVID-19 shots. There are exemptions, according to Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs and Chief of Staff Mike Sepanic, such as students who are entirely enrolled in online classes or claim religious or medical exemptions.
The school is so determined to make sure its community is vaccinated that there’s even an on-site facility to help its staff, students and neighbors get their shots.
“A vaccination clinic is set up on the Rutgers–Camden campus to provide free vaccinations for our university and external communities,” Sepanic says.
Aside from those who are exempt, Stockton, too, is requiring students to be vaccinated, while it remains optional for employees. Baratta reports that, as of early June, more than 50% of full-time employees and 18% of students voluntarily reported that they’ve received their COVID-19 shots. Stockton posts daily updates and COVID-19 data to a dedicated website to ensure its community remains informed.
Rowan College at Burlington County (RCBC) has been at the forefront of the fight against COVID practically from the beginning, with its nursing students rushing to fill voids in trained medical personnel by working at testing sites—including the one right on their Mount Laurel campus—as well as later being among “the first vaccine distributors in the state.”
While Rowan University’s Glassboro campus is requiring all students who live on campus, in affiliated housing off-campus or attend in-person classes to be fully vaccinated, RCBC President Dr. Michael Cioce says he and the community college’s campus community feel 100% confident in not enforcing any kind of vaccine requirement for the 2021-22 academic year.
“We definitely put a lot of thought into what our position needs to be,” he says. “We are one of 18 community colleges [in New Jersey], and not one of our sector peers has come out with anything on a mandatory vaccine. We’re not just using anecdotes; we are looking like our sister institutions.”
In fact, the school closed out the 2020-21 year with five in-person graduation ceremonies, which also allowed the class of 2020’s virtual graduates to come back for a campus commencement ceremony. The events were held across a three-day period, and Cioce considers them a resounding success demonstrating the effectiveness of RCBC’s COVID policies.
“It was probably one of the greatest moments to see and be a part of in my career, explicitly in the last 14 months,” he says. “It is my goal, and the institution’s goal, to use it as a springboard for the in-person return in the fall. We had hundreds of guests, hundreds of employees and hundreds of students here, and over the next three months, we’re going to build on that to reach each of our milestones so we’re in an ideal place for the first day of the fall semester.”
Colleges have myriad sources of viable, constructive feedback to consider while crafting their vaccine plans, and college officials balanced that wide sampling of internal input with following any state-mandated guidelines still in place. As they introduce new phases in their COVID plans and vaccine-requirement updates, there will naturally be praise from those who agree and pushback from those with a different point of view.
“Response has generally been good,” Baratta says. “There are already student requirements for other vaccinations, such as measles, mumps and rubella, so parents and students generally understand the rationale. There are some who are opposed.”
Among the opposition Stockton officials faced was a widely circulated Change.org petition titled “Reverse Stockton University's Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccine Requirement.” In May, senior Nicholas Carlson wrote to the college, its community and President Harvey Kesselman, imploring them to “leave the choice of COVID-19 vaccinations with the individual students and not jeopardize a person’s education over their right to choose not to receive an experimental vaccine.”
“The truth is that this is a serious decision that a student should come to their own conclusion on with their family and doctor,” the document continues. “The right to a quality education should not play a role in deciding upon whether a person should receive an emergency vaccination.” As of mid-June, it had received 1,455 signatures.
However, South Jersey’s four-year colleges are following the footsteps of neighboring ones, and are, in some cases, actually less demanding. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, announced in the beginning of June that its COVID-19 vaccine requirement will extend to faculty, staff and postdoctoral trainees ahead of the fall 2021 semester. They must be fully vaccinated by Aug. 1; the school had already previously mandated that students who are not vaccinated or who are unable to provide documentation will be prohibited from registering for classes.
Drexel University in Philadelphia, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Rutgers’ other New Jersey campuses and Princeton University have also required that their students begin the fall semester vaccinated against COVID.
But even with lingering signs of the pandemic putting a damper on the college experience for some, the prevailing sentiment is that the entirety of colleges’ communities are eager for a return to the campus life they’ve missed.
“Students are eager to return to campus and to the full Rutgers–Camden experience, and we’re seeing that enthusiasm,” says
Sepanic. “They are looking forward to athletics, to working in classrooms and in research labs, to living on campus and much more.”
And Baratta agrees, saying that Stockton students have been inspired to follow vaccine protocols just for the chance to see their friends and engage in typical university activities sooner.
“The overall incentive is the ability to return to a more traditional campus atmosphere in the fall,” he explains. “For students, the ability to better socialize with each other and invite guests on campus is an important incentive.”
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To read the digital edition of South Jersey Magazine, click here.Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 18, Issue 6 (June 2021).