North Dakota universities don’t plan on requiring COVID-19 vaccine

Dylan Sherman

BISMARCK — Universities in North Dakota have required students to get certain vaccines, but the COVID-19 vaccine will not be one of them.

Across the nation universities are facing similar dilemmas, with responses ranging from requiring students to receive the vaccine to making it a recommendation.

Jerry Rostad, vice chancellor for the North Dakota University System, said they are doing everything they can to encourage students and staff to get vaccinated.

“When you look at what the Centers for Disease Control and our public health officials are saying, vaccinations are important in developing herd immunity in the fight against COVID-19,” he said.

Rostad said the campuses are going to encourage everyone to get vaccinated, but that is the furthest the NDUS will be going.

“I want to be clear we are stopping short; we will not be doing any kind of vaccination mandate or requirements,” he said.

Rostad said if that was to change it would be based on action by the state Health Department or the Legislature, and not from the university system.

The current coronavirus vaccines are under emergency use, and Rostad said the system will not implement any kind of mandates for emergency use vaccines.

The university system does have three currently required vaccinations, for measles, mumps and rubella; meningitis; and a tuberculosis screening. However, Rostad said students are able to seek an exemption form and still be able to attend a university without being vaccinated.

“If you have a religious belief or are concerned about your physical well-being, you do have avenues to opt out of those (vaccinations),” he said.

While NDUS has not required students to get vaccinated, Rostad said the number that already have is similar to that for the general public.

“I think there are a lot of students and faculty that have, as soon as it has become available, gone and gotten the vaccine,” he said. “It is probably similar to our society in general; there some people that are hesitant or maybe for whatever purposes don’t want to get vaccinated at all.”

Cara Helgren, vice president of student affairs at University of North Dakota, said UND has been following the same path. “While we have not required the COVID vaccine at this point, we are certainly making COVID-19 testing available and educating on what we know works,” she said.

Providing the vaccine for students who want it has been a recent change. Halgren said UND is working to have the healthiest campus that it can and students have responded positively to being able to get the coronavirus vaccine.

“We have had really strong student support for getting (vaccinated),” she said.

Halgren said many of UND’s students are from the Twin Cities, and while doing online coursework they have driven to Grand Forks to get vaccinated.

“Whether or not all students will get involved, time will tell, but clearly we have some students that are,” she said.

Other than educating students on safety and vaccinations, Halgren said UND would confer with the NDUS before making any changes or requiring a coronavirus vaccine for the fall semester.

Dickinson State University has taken a different approach, by allowing students to be exempt from the school’s mask mandate two weeks after their final dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

Michelle Wilson, director of university relations, said the program is entirely voluntary, but as of April 14, 27% of on-campus staff and faculty had been vaccinated and 26% of on-campus students had been vaccinated.

“Dickinson State was looking for an opportunity to incentivize our students to receive a COVID-19 vaccine,” she said. “Obviously we want to leave that ultimate decision up to our students, which is why the university isn’t requiring vaccinations.”

Wilson added the numbers could be higher from those who received a vaccine before the incentive or those who have not informed the school.

She said the university does not have any plans to require the vaccine in the future. Dickinson State University also intends to remove its mask mandate for the fall 2021 semester.

Debra Haman, director of health and counselling for Minot State University, said the campus has held vaccination clinics on campus but does not plan to require the vaccine for students or staff.

“All students, faculty and staff have been offered vaccinations,” she said. “Our nursing department was offered it right away due to the fact they were on the COVID testing front line.”

With a good portion of students in the medical field, Haman said many students had already gotten vaccinated before the school started hosting clinics. She said there has not been tracking done on how many students, staff or faculty have received the vaccine.

Haman said the university is still tracking coronavirus cases as well as the variants before any decisions are made on lower safety procedures.

“Because it is under emergency use doctrine it is not going to be a requirement that we can foresee,” she said. “We are just going to continue to follow guidelines from the CDC.”

Rostad said if certain universities wanted to require the vaccine, it would have to be removed from the emergency use declaration. “I don’t think that we would even think about approaching it until the emergency declaration has been removed,” he said.

Rostad added while he hopes universities will be close to normal in the fall, it is likely going to be a “new normal.”

“The numbers (of cases) trending downward, increased vaccinations, those are probably the two key indicators of where we are at,” he said.

Rostad said some of the coronavirus safety measures, including plexiglass screens at checkout counters, will likely stay as people have been less sick this year compared to previous years.

“I think there is a lot of discussion in higher education on some of the practices we have implemented … I would think some of these things we are doing are going to stay,” he said. “We’ve rethought how we can deliver academics. The 300-seat lecture hall might be a thing of the past, because anything beyond the 10th row is distanced learning.”

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

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