SNU students face vaccine mandate

Sierra Nevada students displaying COVID-19 vaccination cards.

From SNU website

Sierra Nevada students displaying COVID-19 vaccination cards.

Phoenix Larsen, Editor

On Monday, Oct. 4, students were sent an email stating that by Nov. 1, 2021, all students at Sierra Nevada University must provide proof of the COVID-19 vaccine or they will be unable to register for spring 2022 classes. Additionally, students have been given the option to fill out either a religious or medical exemption.

Unless they comply, students will not be allowed to register for Spring semester.

The Nevada Board of Health met and passed the mandate Aug. 20. It requires all postsecondary  in Nevada – whether they attend a public (Nevada System of Higher Education) or private school, to be vaccinated in order to register for classes in spring 2022. Online students are exempt from the requirement.

Nathan Orme, a public information officer for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, explained the origin of this emergency mandate in an email interview.

“[Nevada] Gov. Sisolak requested his Medical Advisory Team (MAT) review vaccination for NSHE students and following their review, the MAT recommended that Nevada should require all postsecondary students within NSHE institutions to become fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and show proof of vaccination prior to registration and enrollment for the Spring semester,” Orme said. “The regulations were then written by the Department of Health and Human Services and subsequently approved by the Nevada Board of Health.”

Many students have wondered why they have been given such a short notice about this requirement. As a private institution, SNU is not part of the NSHE, which was the focus when the mandate passed, although the mandate extends beyond public institutions. SNU Executive Vice President and Provost Jill Heaton expounded on the reason for the large gap in awareness of the mandate.

“It wasn’t until a month or more later that someone actually gave me the emergency regulation and when I read through it, I got down to the section where it said that it includes private institutions,” Heaton said. “The news articles were not wrong; it just didn’t tell the full picture of the regulation. They focused, to our disadvantage, on the Nevada System of Higher Education and didn’t talk about SNU and some of the other private colleges.”

Kevin Schiesz, SNU Operations Officer, and chair for the Risk Management team at SNU, confirmed that though the board of health passed the vaccine mandate at the end of August, the university waited and sought legal counsel before it alerted students.

“We didn’t want to impose any requirements on our students before we confirmed with absolution that we must do this. We waited and did due diligence to makes sure we had to do it before we enforced the mandate,” Schiesz said.

Heaton and Schiesz both want to emphasize to students that getting the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t the only option that students have to continue their education at the college. The forms for a religious or medical exemption that were sent out to students are also available on the school website.

“A religious exemption has the requirement of a sincerely held belief. Your expression of a sincerely held belief is your expression. I can’t ascertain or try to weigh whether or not you are sincere,” Heaton clarified. “You sign the form, you indicate, and we accept that as a religious exemption. We have no interest in trying to challenge anyone’s sincerely held belief. That is not feasible or practical.”

For those with medical exemptions, the form must be filled out and signed by a licensed medical professional and submitted to the human resource department at the school. Students who comply with one of the three options by Nov. 1 will be able to register for classes.

“Our hope is that students can find one of these steps to take. If they have provided documentation, students are free to register. It isn’t just a requirement to vaccinate,” Schiesz said. “There are two other options, the religious and medical exemption. That is important for students to keep in mind. We have received those from students already and we welcome receiving others.”

Sophomore Taylor Brown, a ski business and resort management major, was surprised that the state of Nevada initiated such a mandate. Brown is concerned for those students who either don’t want the vaccine or don’t have any religious affiliation or medical diagnosis that would exempt them.

“I feel like people don’t need religious or medical reasons to say no to this. I feel people don’t need to choose between certain options, especially if they don’t align with those options. It is forcing people to be in a situation they don’t want to be in,” Brown said.

While the policy doesn’t change Brown’s mind about going to SNU, senior Ashley Baker, who will graduate this coming spring with a major in corporate finance, has hesitations about the direction of the school and concerns about finishing her degree.

“I think that the school did the worst job on clarifying what we needed to do. For myself, I am a senior who has been here all four years and it sucks that my last semester of college might have to be done elsewhere or 100% online,” Baker said. “This should be a personal choice and not be forced among us. I respect those who choose to be vaccinated because it was their personal choice, but now no one gets one.”

When the pandemic hit in the United States in March of 2020, SNU extended its spring break to give professors two weeks to prepare to go fully online. The school continued with online classes until the fall of 2020. Students were then required to get tested before coming back to campus. Science professor Suzanne Gollery, who holds a PhD in immunology, has been an essential part of the risk management team at the school, which manages the COVID policies at the university.

“The college has been doing regular testing of some students, which is a good way to know if COVID is spreading among people. We have also been enforcing the suggested mask mandate,” Gollery said. “Gov. Sisolak and the state of Nevada had agreed to follow the CDC guidelines and when the CDC started seeing COVID rates go up from the new Delta variant, they recommended everyone mask again. We mask indoors and for people who aren’t vaccinated, we have asked they mask outdoors as well.”

The school provides self-administered tests to students, which are then driven by Schiesz to the lab at University Nevada,Reno. Students who test positive and live on campus are alerted by Dean of Students Elizabeth Thibodeau to quarantine to rooms designated and set apart. There is a standard 10-day quarantine. During this time, they participate in classes via Zoom.

As challenging as this mandate is to students, failure to comply on the university’s part could result in complete closure of the campus. According to Nevada statutes, the Nevada State Board of Health is the supreme authority of the state with all health matters and the NSHE is required, by law, to enforce and implement the mandate.

“For us, this isn’t a decision that was made by the university. This decision was made by the state of Nevada. To comply with that, we are required to obtain proof of vaccination and we can be audited to be sure that we are doing what is required. If we didn’t, we could be in violation of this and the school could be shut down,” Schiesz said.

On Oct. 11, the school held a vaccination clinic. Only six students came to the clinic. As of this writing, Schiesz stated that the school does not have the data available yet for the number of students vaccinated on campus, nor for those who have submitted either of the two available exemptions.

“From an institutional standpoint, we must think of what benefits the most. If we fail as an institution to follow a state mandate, then the 550 remaining students would have a reasonable right to sue us,” Heaton said. “We can’t avoid the fact that we may lose a few students, but I hope that they will seriously consider that they have options. There are three options. It is not that we are forcing you to take the vaccine with no other alternatives.”