ALBANY – The state university system has no plans to mandate Covid-19 vaccines for faculty and staffers this fall, even as it proceeds on a requirement that every returning student get a vaccine if they want to be on campus this fall semester.
While Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over the months routinely dismissed the notion of mandating the vaccine for anyone, he said Monday that the State University of New York will launch the vaccine requirement for all students wishing to go back to campuses this fall.
All state university students will be required to be vaccinated in order to return to the 64-campus system this fall, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Monday.
On Monday, Cuomo’s office would not answer a question whether the edict will apply to tens of thousand of SUNY employees. But on Tuesday, a SUNY spokeswoman replied to The Buffalo News and said there are no plans to force SUNY employees to get vaccinated.
“The directive is focused on students. SUNY is developing a plan per the directive announced yesterday," said Holly Liapis, the SUNY spokeswoman. She did not answer a question about possible exemptions to the requirement, such as for medical reasons, nor did she elaborate when asked why only students were being included for the 64-campus system mandate.
One SUNY student said if officials really want to reduce exposure on campuses by forcing students to get vaccinated, then all segments of the higher education community should be required to get a jab.
Many students already have had at least one shot, despite having access to it only for the past few weeks, according to local higher education administrators.
“I feel like that’s messed up … It’s not fair that they can choose not to get it," Madison Mack, a senior international relations major at Buffalo State, said of SUNY employees not be covered by the vaccination edict.
Extending the mandatory vaccine order for SUNY employees would run into unions representing those workers that have something college students don’t have: political might. SUNY last year enforced mandatory testing for students in certain cases, while, according to one SUNY document, such testing was “strongly recommended” per written understandings between SUNY and various unions representing employees at the college system.
Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, which represents 37,000 faculty and professional staff at SUNY campuses, said the union “absolutely welcomes” the governor’s announcement on Monday of making it mandatory for students to get vaccinated.
“It will be absolutely crucial in getting back to a sense of normalcy in our campus communities," added Kowal, whose union is an affiliate of the New York State United Teachers union.
But Kowal said Cuomo can’t order vaccines for SUNY staff in the same way that he can for students. “It would require negotiations with UUP” and the other unions, he said.
The CDC and the FDA on Friday announced that the benefits of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine outweighed risks of blood clots and low blood platelet levels associated with the shot in rare cases.
That’s because in a vaccination-mandated program for staff there would be the potential for disciplinary actions against professors and others who refused to get vaccinated. Changes in disciplinary rules, he noted, require contract negotiations with the unions by the governor’s Office of Employee Relations.
Kowal said a recent survey of his union members found that about 80% either had gotten vaccinated or plan to do so.
A number of unions represent SUNY employees. Besides UUP, the Civil Service Employees Association, the largest state workers’ union, represents 12,000 SUNY office staff such as clerks, as well as maintenance and other positions. The union on Tuesday said only that SUNY has not shared plans to try to require vaccinations of SUNY workers.
The white collar Public Employees Federation represents attorneys, nurses, accountants and others; it didn't comment Tuesday. University police are represented by the Police Benevolent Association, and there are other smaller unions for SUNY workers.
SUNY employs more than 50,000 people at its 29-state operated campuses, a number that does not include community colleges.
While many SUNY campuses hosted a quarter or less of their courses face to face in the fall, 87% of classes at Alfred State in Allegany County were in-person.
Cuomo said the vaccine requirement will go forward if the federal government fully approves any of the vaccines now on the market; that process is underway in Washington.
Some student groups on Monday already raised concerns about the vaccination mandate. The SUNY Student Assembly, which represents student governments across the system, said students support safe re-opening policies for the fall.
“Students have lots of questions on the specifics related to vaccine policy, including that for faculty and staff, and look forward to participating in the development of plans sufficiently before widespread adoption," said Brad Hershenson, president of the Student Assembly organization.
Mack, the Buffalo State senior, said she and her friends talked a couple months ago about how SUNY was likely going to require students to get vaccinated when it became more clear that SUNY wants to reopen for a more normal in-person fall semester this year. “A lot of people aren’t going to want to get it," Mack, a board member of the New York Public Interest Research Group chapter at Buffalo State, said on Tuesday.
For Mack, from Brooklyn, the vaccine raises concerns because it is operating on an emergency use authorization instead of a full FDA approval method and, as a Black person, she understands the historical worries about government-run vaccine programs in minority communities. She has not been vaccinated, but plans to do so when she returns home for the summer.
Mack said she understands the vaccine is being hailed by public health officials as a way to end the pandemic’s march, but that many students, especially minorities, “just don’t trust it.” She said the mandatory aspect of the SUNY program is unsettling for many students, especially if faculty and other employees don’t have to get vaccinated. She said that puts her friends and family members at risk because she can still infect someone with the virus even after being vaccinated.
“Why put our families at risk?" she said.
The Buffalo State student said SUNY sends the message about campuses being one community.