Portland Community College’s Board of Directors was slated to vote Thursday evening on a vaccine mandate, which would come into effect during the winter term, but it postponed that decision until next month.
Earlier this summer, PCC had initially decided against a vaccine mandate — a decision which came from President Mark Mitsui and the college’s COVID-19 Opening Leadership Team.
As COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise in Oregon, PCC’s board was to reconsider a mandate Thursday, but the majority of board members voted to table that decision until the next board meeting.
In the meantime, board members said they hope to gather more information on what things look like at other community colleges that do have a mandate, and to look at a potential mandate more thoroughly through a racial equity lens.
“At a certain point, when you institute a mandate, you are going to disenroll students for not following the mandate,” President Mitsui said, noting that many students who are hesitant to get vaccinated come from communities of color and immigrant communities.
Director Tiffani Penson, who is Black, spoke against a mandate — stating it would not help communities of color.
“The issue is not really whether we believe in vaccination. The real issue is how do we get us there, and making sure that all voices are heard and respecting the different people, the different demographics, and at the same time sticking with our mission, which is providing access to all,” Penson said.
PCC Director Dan Saltzman is one of the board members who has continued to be vocally supportive of a mandate.
“When we come back a month from now, we need to consider social justice and racial justice as it stacks up against the facts we are facing in a pandemic,” Saltzman said. “I support putting this off, because I don’t sense that there are the votes here tonight to pass this mandate, and I’ll pray that in a month that will change, and it will pass, and we will do the right thing for our employees and students, the right thing for our compatriots in this world.”
About 10 people spoke during the public comment section of the board meeting Thursday evening, many of them staff and faculty members supportive of a vaccine mandate. Some people outside of the PCC community also spoke.
“I’m calling to encourage your board to pass a vaccination requirement,” said Lisa Fragala, a board member at Lane Community College — the only community college in Oregon to fully require a COVID-19 vaccination or valid exemption for in-person students and staff.
Multiple health care workers also spoke during Thursday’s board meeting — speaking to the increasing number of Oregon COVID-19 cases and the delta variant’s effect on the spread of the virus.
“It’s true that everyone has the right to refuse a medical intervention for their own good,” said Teri Mills, a registered nurse and a retired PCC faculty member. “But, vaccines not only protect the person vaccinated, but also that person’s family, neighbors, classmates and coworkers.”
Some PCC community members felt entirely shut out of the decision-making process.
“The decisions themselves are disassociated from real people,” Davina Ramirez, a professor at PCC, told OPB prior to the Thursday board meeting.
PCC is planning on a “sustained reopening” for the fall term, meaning that a bulk of classes will remain online and remote. But, some courses will be taught in-person, such as those in the medical and dental fields, some art and physical education classes and others.
Ramirez teaches English for speakers of other languages, or ESOL, a department that will have more face-to-face classes than others.
“I think about the possibility that my classroom is going to become a vector,” she said, “that somehow inadvertently by face-to-face teaching, it’s going to lead to someone’s death, someone’s hospitalization.”
Ramirez said she’s excited to return to the classroom and see her students, but she’s also nervous. She acknowledges that for her students specifically, face-to-face instruction is crucial, and a vaccine requirement could make that feel safer.
“Whenever you talk about things that impact the most marginalized, the poorest, the least empowered, and the most needy students, and the students who are almost exclusively of color — those are my students. That’s my community as well,” said Ramirez, who is Mexican American. “They need face-to-face instruction desperately or they will either go to another college, or they’ll fall through the cracks and possibly lose years of education.”
Ramirez believes mandating the vaccine could help students like hers, who are primarily people of color, feel less hesitant.
“Students who lack information about the vaccine, who don’t know how to get it, they don’t know where to turn or who to trust, maybe,” Ramirez told OPB earlier this week. “The beauty of what I do is my students do trust me. They do trust our program.”
If PCC were to enact a vaccine mandate, it would follow the lead of all seven of Oregon’s public universities. Lane Community College in Eugene is the only community college in the state to have fully enacted a vaccine mandate. Central Oregon Community College in Bend is requiring the vaccine, or a valid exemption, for students living in on-campus housing or working in clinical settings.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown Thursday announced a requirement that K-12 school employees and volunteers be vaccinated against COVID-19. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a similar requirement Wednesday, also extending it to higher education institutions.
“It’s definitely a tough topic … and I appreciate the opportunity to discuss it further,” Board Chair Mohamed Alyajouri said of a potential vaccine mandate. “Sometimes you want closure, but in this case it was good reasoning to have it be delayed and have more information if that’s going to help people feel better about the decision they’re making.”