The University of Charleston will require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for the fall semester — something that West Virginia’s public colleges and universities are not mandating.
UC President Marty Roth said he expects about 1,500 in-person students on the Charleston campus in the fall, and 200 at the Beckley campus.
“And we have a responsibility to each and every one of those individuals to have a healthy and safe environment,” Roth said Wednesday. “And we feel the best way for us to do that is by requiring vaccines for all of our students and doing everything we can to have a fully vaccinated community.”
The university also announced the end of the mandate that students wear masks effective at the start of the fall semester. Roth said 3 feet of social distancing will still be required between students in classrooms and public spaces. They also will still be required to report daily, on a phone app, any symptoms or contact with infected people.
“There were three things which were really difficult for our students and our entire community last year: The first one was having to wear masks all the time; the second was having to participate in weekly COVID testing; and the third was having to quarantine if anybody came into contact with somebody known to have COVID-19,” Roth said.
“Now, with the vaccine, we don’t need to worry about those three things,” he said.
Roth warned that a student still will be required to quarantine if they show symptoms after being in contact with an infected person.
West Virginia University made a similar announcement about lifting restrictions last week, but it won’t require vaccinations.
It is unclear if any other West Virginia private colleges, like UC, are going to mandate a vaccine.
“Most of them are still contemplating what they’re going to do,” Ben Beakes said about the seven other colleges in West Virginia Independent Colleges and Universities. Beakes is executive director of that group of nonprofit private colleges.
Jessica Tice, spokeswoman for the state’s higher education oversight and policy agencies, wrote in an email that, “since all vaccines are currently under FDA emergency-use authorization and the state hasn’t mandated any other population receive the vaccine, we have not made a recommendation to make the vaccine mandatory on public campuses.”
She wrote that colleges are providing vaccines to students and are strongly recommending vaccination.
In other states, colleges differ on whether they’re requiring it or not.
Health experts say the vaccines have proven to be safe and overwhelmingly effective, but opposition to requiring them continues nationwide. Last week, Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order banning public colleges there from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations or masks for those without vaccinations, The Arizona Republic reported.
UC said students who can’t get vaccinated before they return to campus will have access to free clinics. UC said it will consider medical exemptions.
UC spokeswoman Carrie Stollings said documentation of the vaccination will be required, just as it is for other vaccinations required of students. Dave Traube, another spokesperson, said students who still don’t want to get the vaccine can get a tuition refund or see if an online UC program is right for them.
Unlike students, UC staff members “are being strongly encouraged,” but not required, to be vaccinated.
Roth said, “it’s just a little bit of a different situation when you’re operating a communal environment, which we’re doing with the majority of our students who are residents on our campus, versus employees who are going home every day.”
“And there’s legal issues,” Roth said.
He mentioned that it might be harder for an employee to find a different job than for a student to find a different school. He referred further questions about the legal distinction to a labor attorney.
The university said unvaccinated employees “must wear face masks or coverings inside all campus buildings, participate in return-to-campus and weekly COVID-19 surveillance testing, and be quarantined after close contact with someone known to have COVID-19.”