Hundreds of U of M faculty want stronger vaccine policies

A crowd of people in a building lobby
University of Minnesota students at Coffman Memorial Union on Sept. 3. Some faculty and staff want tougher policies regarding vaccinations and other COVID-19 measures.
Peter Cox | MPR News file

At the University of Minnesota, hundreds of faculty and staff say the school system has not taken strong enough coronavirus precautions as the state sees a spike in cases linked to the delta variant.

Adjunct professor Bobak Ha’Eri spent the summer taking care of his dying father and has a child with health concerns at home. He worried about stepping back into a classroom full of students and asked to teach remotely, but says he was denied. The U of M is only allowing instructors who themselves are immunocompromised to teach online.

So a few days before classes began, Ha’Eri canceled his fall courses. An attorney, Ha’Eri loves teaching but doesn’t have to do it to make a living. But he doesn't want to return to a crowded campus.

“I would teach this class for free if the U would have let me stay online. I mean, it's annoying, but it doesn't hurt me. But the students that were going to take my class — all 40 of them and the two sections — they're the ones that got hurt,” Ha’Eri said.

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Last year, the university deployed a return-to-campus process that included protocols and restrictions on student movement, as well as a large number of online-only courses.

Now the campus is trying to return to normal. Students are required to get a COVID-19 vaccine, with religious and health exemptions. They attest to getting that vaccine in an online form. They also have to wear masks indoors. Missing are lockdowns and tougher requirements for indoor spacing.

Karen-Sue Taussig, an associate professor and chair of the anthropology department, said she “felt incredibly supported” last year.

“This year I feel like it's a disaster in terms of how long it took the university to implement a vaccine mandate. I don't feel like the vaccine mandate has teeth,” Taussig said.

Earlier this month, Taussig and more than 500 faculty, staff and students sent President Joan Gabel a letter urging her to revisit several protocols around COVID at the school, including the vaccine mandate, indoor spacing and more flexibility in teaching.

University health officials say the Minnesota Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines helped shape its COVID policies.

The U says reported COVID cases ranged from 36 in the first week and 27 cases in the second. Those numbers are in line with what the U experienced most of last year, outside of the November peak, when cases were around seven times that high.

One of the biggest areas of contention so far is how the vaccine mandate works for students. They are not asked to upload their vaccination card but to attest that they’ve received a vaccination. Jill DeBoer, director of the University of Minnesota’s Health Emergency Response Office, said it's the same process they use for all other vaccine requirements.

“Like many things in higher education, we use the honor system, and we trust our students, and we trust our staff and faculty. And we find on our campuses that students want to do the right thing,” DeBoer said.

Some faculty and staff say there’s also a lack of clarity for what to do if people are sick or aren’t vaccinated, said Cherrene Horazuk, and president of AFSCME Local 3800, the clerical workers union at the University of Minnesota.

"There isn't a lot of emphasis on what the actual protocols are. And things like contact tracing and whether or not that's taking place. And so there is a fear that you may be exposed without knowing it,” Horazuk said.

DeBoer said the university will change its policies if there are serious health concerns.

“If we start to see that people with COVID who've been vaccinated are having severe illnesses or hospitalizations or death, that would be a time, I think, for CDC and MDH and all of us to really rethink our strategies.”

Students have until Oct. 8 to attest that they’ve been fully vaccinated.