“As close to ‘normal’ as possible”: Whitman announces plans for in-person fall semester, vaccinations required

Lena Friedman, Staff Reporter

Whitman announced last week that vaccinations will be mandatory for all students next fall — following suit with colleges across the country that are planning for a semester reminiscent of pre-COVID times. 

“Our goal is to be back in person in the fall with a Whitman experience that is as close to ‘normal’ as possible,” President Kathy Murray announced in an email to the Whitman community on April 23. “That means in-person classes, normal living and dining, lots of campus activities, athletics competition, music events, plays, field trips and no quarantine requirement after travel.”

Masking and distancing requirements will also be eased as long as state protocols permit, Murray said. College faculty and staff are also expected — though not required — to get vaccinated. Students who are unwilling to get vaccinated will have to take a leave of absence, except for limited medical and religious exemptions. 

“We are still working out the details of how [the exemptions] will work,” Peter Harvey, Chair of the Coronavirus Task Force, said in an email to The Wire. “[B]ut my expectation is we will ask for a letter from a doctor confirming the need for a medical exemption and a letter from a clergy member confirming the need for a religious exemption.” 

Any employees who choose not to get vaccinated, as well as students who are exempt, will need to continue wearing masks around campus (even when mask requirements are eased for vaccinated individuals), get frequent COVID-19 testing and face travel restrictions.

There is precedent in vaccine requirements at Whitman and similar institutions, including for the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The COVID-19 vaccines, however, pose a new situation as they are currently under emergency use authorization (EUA) by the FDA and not yet fully approved.

Junior biology major Rebecca Johnston, president of the college’s Pre-Health Society, has grappled with the ethics of imposing a vaccine mandate at Whitman and sees two sides to the issue.

“Herd immunity will be invaluable in keeping people safe and kind of allowing the college to move past this really difficult time, but at the same time, there’s kind of this added factor of respecting bodily autonomy and acknowledging that receiving the vaccine is a medical procedure,” Johnston said. “If people are educated on the vaccine and they make educated decisions not to receive it, I feel as though that is something that should be respected.”

The Pre-Health Society is supporting vaccination efforts and has partnered with faculty, student clubs and the administration to educate and sign up students for vaccination. The goal is to get as many students as possible fully vaccinated by the end of the semester, Johnston said. 

Vaccinations opened up to the Whitman community — anyone 16 and above —  in mid-April, although some were able to get vaccinated earlier through pre-existing conditions and job eligibility, or by volunteering at the county’s mass vaccination clinic. Whitman is asking students, faculty and staff to show proof of vaccination, and 36% are reported as fully vaccinated as of April 27. 

Given the transmissibility and potential severity of the virus, Associate Professor of Sociology Alissa Cordner thinks a vaccine mandate is important not just for the Whitman community but for the greater Walla Walla area. 

“Whitman as an institution has a responsibility to offer a safe environment to all members of the Whitman community,” Cordner said, “and in this current moment, full vaccination is the best way to support safety for Whitman folks in terms of COVID-19 risks.”

Whitman faculty are also offering accommodations to students who may experience side effects after receiving the vaccine. 

“This includes allowing students to take final exams late, and turn in final papers and projects late,” Provost Alzada Tipton said in an April 23 email to faculty. “There will be flexibility with regard to final grade due dates for faculty who have accommodated students receiving vaccinations.”  

The college’s plan for an in-person fall semester is subject to some uncertainty, Murray said, in light of currently-emerging virus mutations which may complicate vaccine effectiveness.

“We are working with staff from the governor’s office as they update fall guidelines for institutions of higher education, but we do not know what those will be yet,” Murray said. “For these reasons, we are remaining flexible and will continue to plan for several scenarios so that we are able to adjust and respond if conditions change.”