Students debate Philly’s new vaccine mandate for colleges

Health care workers at the Temple University vaccination clinic in April 2021 (Danya Henninger / Billy Penn)

Health care workers at the Temple University vaccination clinic in April 2021 (Danya Henninger / Billy Penn)

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For the past 18 months, Rachel Gelman, 21, has navigated much of her college experience at Temple University virtually. Online classes were not ideal, but she preferred being safe than risking COVID exposure during in-person classes.

But in the weeks leading up to her returning to classrooms full time this fall for her final semester, she had become wary of being back on campus — disappointed that Temple was not mandating vaccines for all students and faculty.

On Friday, the political science student was happy to see the city of Philadelphia intervene.

Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole announced that Philadelphia health care workers and students and staff of city colleges will need to be vaccinated by October 15.

“I’m really glad that the vaccine mandate is happening,” said Gelman, “though I’m a little disappointed that Temple couldn’t have required their own mandate and had to be more or less forced to by the city.”

Temple had been among a small group of Philadelphia colleges that had not planned to mandate vaccines for the fall semester. Other universities — including Drexel, Penn, LaSalle and St. Joseph’s — made the call earlier this summer to require the shots, as did dozens of other colleges and universities across the state.

Temple officials had argued that leaving the decision to students and requiring testing was the “most inclusive option.”

William Nam, a second-year law student at Temple University, had supported Temple’s decision not to mandate the vaccine.

“I don’t think the city should be able to mandate a vaccine that’s only authorized to be used in emergency situations,” said Nam. “I think it’s up to the human being, the citizen, if they want to get vaccinated or not, and if they want to take the risk of getting severely ill from coronavirus or, you know, taking the chance of getting the vaccine and protecting themselves from possible deaths, of course.”

Nam, 28, is fully vaccinated, but says he only got the shots because of public pressure. He appreciates the vaccine’s ability to protect him from getting severly ill but doesn’t believe people should be forced to receive it.

“I felt like I was bullied by society, it just felt like I was getting it due to societal pressures and not because I actually wanted to get it,” said Nam.

Nam has been closely following a legal challenge to campus vaccine mandates, hoping that students at Indiana University appealing required shots there would win on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Thursday, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, turned down the students’ request for emergency relief without comment, allowing the University of Indiana to require vaccinations.

“I think at this point, I’m in the minority,” said Nam. “I do trust our Supreme Court justices, I do trust, to a certain extent, the executive branch, and it seems like they’re making the right decisions for our health and safety, but I don’t think it’s right for them to meddle with our choice if we want to get vaccinated or not.”

Following the city’s announcement, Temple President Jason Wingard said he supported the change in a statement.

“Public health experts have made it clear that widespread vaccination is our best defense in the fight to mitigate the virus, and to restore the joy and value of gathering with families, friends, and colleagues,” said Wingard. “It is also the responsible action to protect the health and welfare of our communities.”

University officials could not provide data on the percentage of faculty and students currently vaccinated. They say they will now require all students to upload their vaccination records before the start of the semester.

Statewide view

The debate around vaccine mandates has picked up in the past month as rising cases and hospitalizations due to the delta variant have forced businesses, school districts, and colleges to pivot.

Matthew Chesky, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student at Penn State Harrisburg, is among those who oppose the shots. He does not trust the governmental push to get the vaccine and supports Penn State’s decision not to mandate vaccination.

“I would say I don’t trust the science,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to keep up or to understand what’s true and what’s not true.”

Chesky is excited to get back to in-person classes in the coming weeks.

“My main view on it is as long as you keep clean, cover your mouth, and keep yourself distanced … should be fine,” said Chesky.

Despite the existence of breakthrough COVID-19 infections, public health officials say the data shows that those who are not vaccinated are at a much higher risk of getting infected and developing severe disease or dying. Unvaccinated people are also contagious for longer periods of time. 

At Penn State, hundreds of faculty members from across the network’s campuses have signed an open letter calling for the university to require vaccines. This comes after Penn State student Neil Patel died of COVID-19.

The 20-year-old from Upper Merion High School passed away in August after a monthslong battle with COVID-19 that had him on a ventilator since April 11.

Outside of Philadelphia, this debate has also been most pronounced in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Facing backlash from some students and faculty, the 14 state-owned universities say they cannot mandate vaccinations without authorization from the legislature.

“We want to see colleges and universities make decisions that keep students, faculty, and staff safe. Given the contagion level of the delta variant, it seems reasonable that we would want to protect our students from the risk of a severe illness,” said Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties. “However, if the decision is to not require vaccines, we should require masking in indoor spaces as recommended by the CDC. This seems to be a reasonable approach.”

‘Protecting the people’

For Temple University parent Elizabeth Homer, 53, knowing her daughter will be returning to a campus with vaccinated students has brought a sense of relief.

Last December, Homer and her entire family contracted COVID-19 at the same time. While she and her daughter had mild symptoms, her husband was hospitalized for seven days.

“I just wish people would just realize that it’s not a big, huge conspiracy. You know, [vaccines] really will help to eradicate this,” said Homer.

Homer also saw her daughter struggle through virtual courses and hopes the city mandate means students will never have to go back online.

Gelman, on the other hand, hopes that Temple will consider the possibility of going hybrid again if case rates continue to climb. She says students need to continue to be vigilant, given the recent data about the delta variant that showed that vaccinated people could still transmit the virus. And she’s especially concerned about the university’s impact on the surrounding North Philadelphia community.

“The community members who live in North Philadelphia — and it’s already a really contested issue,” she said. “I think that this just adds another layer to it, protecting the people who were here before us.”

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