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Kansas Universities Say For Now, No Plans To Require COVID-19 Vaccine

Stephan Bisaha
Kansas News Service/File photo

A small but growing number of colleges are requiring students to get a COVID-19 vaccine before returning to campus, but Kansas universities so far say they won’t require the shot.

Rick Muma, interim president at Wichita State University, said during a virtual town hall earlier this month that the COVID shot is authorized for emergency use, which makes it different from other vaccines the university requires.

“It becomes difficult to require something that hasn’t received full approval by the FDA,” Muma said. Rutgers in New Jersey was the first major university to make the COVID vaccine a requirement to enroll for the fall semester.

In a statement posted on the university’s website, Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway said requiring the vaccine would allow “an expedited return to pre-pandemic normal,” including more face-to-face course offerings, expanded dining options and additional events and activities.

“We are committed to health and safety for all members of our community, and adding COVID-19 vaccination to our student immunization requirements will help provide a safer and more robust college experience for our students,” Holloway said.

Since then, a handful of other universities, including Cornell, Brown and Notre Dame, have added the COVID-19 vaccine to their list of enrollment requirements. In all cases, students can request an exemption for medical or religious reasons.

So far, no Kansas university has announced plans to require the vaccine.

Kansas universities, like most in the U.S., require students living on campus to show proof of vaccination for illnesses such as bacterial meningitis, which can spread rapidly in close quarters. Screenings for tuberculosis also are common, and the University of Kansas requires students to have a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine as well.

Making the COVID vaccine mandatory, though, is complex and controversial.

A bill making its way through the Kansas Legislature — Senate Bill 213, authored by Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson — would prohibit employers from penalizing any employee based on his or her vaccination status. The measure would impose a $1,000 fine on employers who violate the restriction.

Steffen argued in February that the issue is one of personal freedom, and that it’s too soon to know whether the vaccine has long-term safety risks.

Opponents of the bill pointed to some medical providers and other employers that require influenza vaccinations —mandates which have been upheld in court.

Muma, Wichita State’s interim president, said it’s unlikely the university will require a COVID vaccine for students, faculty or staff unless directed to do so by the Kansas Board of Regents or state lawmakers.

WSU is encouraging everyone on campus to “take advantage of the vaccine as it becomes available,” and will continue to monitor guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as national trends, he said.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.