Portland Community College has decided against a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
PCC’s Board of Directors voted against a COVID-19 vaccine mandate Thursday which would have gone into effect winter term.
PCC had initially decided against a vaccine mandate earlier this summer, but the board was to reconsider that decision last month. It delayed its vote until Thursday, opting for more time to gather information about how mandates are functioning at other colleges, and to look at a potential mandate through a racial equity lens.
“This is not equity. This is not being inclusive. This is not taking into account what people are feeling or thinking,” PCC Director Tiffani Penson said at the notion of a vaccine mandate. “What is equity is us continuing to provide education opportunity, vaccination clinics and the conversation, and treating people with dignity and respect.”
If PCC were to have enacted a mandate, it would have followed the lead of all seven of Oregon’s public universities, adding the state’s largest post-secondary institution to the list of campuses with vaccine requirements.
Lane Community College is the only community college in Oregon to fully require a COVID-19 vaccination or valid exemption for in-person students and staff. Central Oregon Community College is also requiring the vaccine or a valid exemption for students who are living in on-campus housing or working in clinical settings.
In the past few months, PCC has distributed multiple surveys to students and staff about a potential vaccine mandate. That includes surveys that were part of a report released last month which took 125 dedicated staff hours to generate.
In its latest report ahead of Thursday’s meeting, PCC distributed a survey to more than 51,000 students on Sept. 1. About 4,700 students responded to the survey — a response rate of just more than 9%.
The survey found that a mandate could make students of color more hesitant to get vaccinated.
“Another difference by race was the lower likelihood of unvaccinated students of color to enroll in in-person courses if a mandate is implemented,” according to board documents.
According to the survey, 35.3% of Native American student respondents would be less likely to enroll in in-person classes compared to 5.4% of white student respondents.
On the other end, many respondents said a mandate would encourage them to take in-person classes. Forty-four percent of respondents said if there was a vaccination mandate for the winter term, they would be more likely to take in-person classes. About 25% of students said they would be less likely.
Some faculty feel differently. Frank Goulard, President of PCC’s faculty union, stated that the union’s executive council voted to support a vaccination mandate.
PCC Director Dan Saltzman, who was in support of a mandate, said he did not regard the college’s most recent survey as “scientific.”
“I believe this really is the number one public health crisis confronting all of us,” Saltzman said. “I believe the vaccine mandate is the best way to save lives of all races, to reduce the risk of hospitalization, to reduce the risk of quarantines, to reduce the risk that PCC parents could pose to their under age 11 children.”
Saltzman dedicated his “yes” vote to a PCC student who had died after contracting COVID-19 last year. During the meeting, other directors had clarified the student did not contract COVID-19 while on campus.
Saltzman said the effect of the pandemic is so broad that “we need to temporarily remove our equity lenses in order so we can focus on the virus that is trying to kill us all.”
That sentiment caused a bit of uproar and disagreement with other directors.
“I don’t think that we should ever abandon our main mission ever,” Director Laurie Cremona Wagner, who voted against the mandate, said. “I don’t understand how we can’t do both.”
Many directors who voted “no” on the mandate stated that it would reduce access to education and services for PCC students.
“A ‘yes’ vote for this motion is not a denial of access to anyone. It is not turning away anyone,” said Director Michael Sonnleitner, the only director to join Saltzman in voting for the mandate. “At least half of our sections will continue, almost certainly, to be remote for the foreseeable future.”
PCC will be in a “sustained reopening” for fall term, meaning that most classes will remain online and remote. Some courses will be taught in-person including classes in the medical and dental fields, some art and physical education classes, and others.
Angela McMahon, PCC’s Director of the Office of Reopening, said at Thursday’s board meeting that the college will probably stay in that sustained reopening for the winter term. PCC will decide on that officially by Oct. 15.
“This is not a resolution to not do anything,” Board Chair Mohamed Alyajouri said. “Starting with myself first, I’m going to demand that our administration puts forth all best efforts to increase vaccine clinics, education, reinforce the masking mandate and distancing.”
It’s also possible that the months PCC spent on surveys, analysis and debate concluding with directors voting against a vaccine mandate could all be overruled by a higher authority.
Alyajouri said that if Gov. Kate Brown were to put forth an executive order for a vaccination mandate, or if a similar ruling were to happen federally, “this could be all moot … and at point, we can bring it up again.”
Currently, Brown has required that all health care workers and state executive branch employees — including public school teachers — be vaccinated by Oct. 18.