Jane Carlson and Leslie Renken | USA Today Network GALESBURG — Illinois college students are next in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine after dozens of county health departments — outside of Chicago and Cook County — recently broadened eligibility to all residents over 16. Some Illinois colleges and universities already are offering shots on campus, while some students are scouring local
Jane Carlson and Leslie Renken
| USA Today Network
GALESBURG — Illinois college students are next in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine after dozens of county health departments — outside of Chicago and Cook County — recently broadened eligibility to all residents over 16.
Some Illinois colleges and universities already are offering shots on campus, while some students are scouring local pharmacies and county-run sites for appointments.
But the big question — will area schools require the vaccine? — remains unsettled for most institutions.
Western Illinois University is offering vaccine clinics for students.
At this point, student participation is voluntary, according to university spokesperson Darcie Shinberger.
“This is certainly part of the discussion for our fall 2021 planning and will be guided by the state of Illinois, IBHE and IDPH directives,” Shinberger said.
Bradley University was hosting vaccine clinics this week and has not yet reached a decision on whether or not to mandate vaccinations for students returning in the fall, said Renee Charles, the school’s spokesperson.
“We are waiting to see what the governing educational organizations as well as the CDC and IDPH recommend,” Charles said.
Knox College is anticipating it will implement a requirement for the upcoming school year, with some exceptions.
“As long as public health guidance continues to support that it is safe and effective, as evidenced by FDA approval beyond emergency use, we anticipate that we will require our students to be vaccinated unless they have a medical or religious/philosophical objection,” said Lisa Van Riper, the college’s spokesperson. “We will follow legal and public health guidance.”
Monmouth College hopes to decide whether vaccinations will be required on campus soon, according to spokesperson Duane Bonifer.
“As with everything else, the virus is ultimately in charge — as well as how people continue to behave during the pandemic,” Bonifer said.
He noted a grant from the Community Health Foundation of Warren and Henderson counties helped the college conduct around 2,000 COVID-19 tests on campus this spring.
“We’ve had an extremely low positivity rate all spring — less than 1%,” Bonifer said. “The campus community has taken things seriously and done a good job.”
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alerted students Monday about a “select number” of vaccine appointments for people who live or work in Champaign County. More spots are expected to open as supply increases.
For now, UI isn’t mandating that students get the vaccine. The university is “still gathering information” on that and working to set up a campus vaccination site, pending approval from the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, according to spokeswoman Robin Kaler.
Chancellor Robert Jones told faculty members last month that decisions about vaccine requirements will be made by the Illinois Department of Public Health. He addressed the issue during a meeting of the academic senate, days after Rutgers University became the first institution to announce it will require all students enrolled in fall 2021 classes to get the vaccine.
Since then, the University of Notre Dame and Cornell and Nova Southeastern universities have also shared plans that mandate shots. Students can request exemptions for medical or religious reasons.
In Illinois, state law already requires all domestic and international college students to receive proper immunizations for diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis and meningitis. The law was last amended in 2016. Students typically submit proof of vaccination to their schools’ health centers upon enrollment.
An IDPH spokeswoman wouldn’t say if the agency plans to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the law, known as the College Immunization Code.
She said there are also “no plans at this time” to provide vaccine allocations directly to colleges for campus clinics, which some other states are doing.
“Over the course of the next few months IDPH will work with the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Board of Higher Education and other stakeholders to develop appropriate guidance for students returning to the classroom,” according to a statement. “Private colleges and universities have the ability to enforce their own rules and policies regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.”
A spokeswoman for IBHE said it’s “not currently issuing guidance mandating vaccines” but encourages students, teachers and staff to receive the vaccine when eligible and to keep following public health guidance.
Prominent private schools such as Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago won’t require vaccines at this juncture.
“We have asked Northwestern students, faculty and staff to voluntarily disclose whether they have received a vaccine,” a school spokeswoman said. “As more members of our community gain access to shots, we will revisit whether we will require vaccination.”
Schools on the quarter system, like Northwestern and U of C, don’t end until mid-June, so there’s more time to offer them shots.
Labor and employment attorney Michael Jones, who consults with higher education clients, said the decision to require vaccinations is more likely a messaging dilemma than a legal one.
“The universities don’t want to alienate their student base or their family members,” said Jones, a Philadelphia-based partner at the firm Eckert Seamans. “From a public relations standpoint, they don’t want to look heavy-handed.”
Jones said he expects most schools to adopt a middle-of-the-road approach. Instead of mandating that all students get the shots, Jones said, colleges might require them for those living in dorms or attending in-person classes while continuing to offer remote options for students who don’t consent. That could be more feasible for larger institutions with resources to continue providing online learning, he said.
“It’s a bit like a carrot and a stick,” Jones said. “The carrot of being allowed more freedom and more of a return to normal is what a lot of schools are going to look at as a way to encourage broad vaccination without having to put down a blanket mandate across the campus.”
As they wait to hear more from their schools, some but not all Illinois college students can start signing up for their shots.
More than 80 county health departments have already expanded vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 and older. That includes students in McLean County, where Illinois State University is located; Peoria County, home of Bradley University; and McDonough County, which includes Western Illinois University. Only ISU and WIU have been able to set up vaccination sites on campus, mostly for faculty and staff.
The portion of Cook County outside Chicago is expected to open the vaccine up to all residents over 16 on Monday. Chicago, which receives its own vaccine allocations from the federal government, is poised to do so in May.
Students with high-risk medical conditions or those with jobs on campus, in health care or in school settings are already eligible.
Other states are further along in inoculating college students, a group thought to be particularly effective at spreading COVID-19.
Ohio is making a concerted push to provide college students with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at mass vaccination sites before the school year ends. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said that’s because college students are more likely to spread the virus through social interactions even if they’re less likely to become seriously ill. All residents became eligible March 29, and the one-dose shot can speed up the immunization process because a second shot isn’t necessary.
Indiana gave college students access to the vaccine beginning March 23. Purdue University has received an allocation of vaccines from its state health department and is opening a campus site Tuesday to “help vaccinate as many students as possible before the end of the spring semester.” Students are “strongly encouraged” but not required to receive the vaccine.
Leslie Renken of the Journal Star and Jane Carlson of The Register-Mail contributed to this story.