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Q&A: Top Official Says ISU Does, In Fact, Have COVID-19 Vaccine Requirement

Emily Bollinger
Illinois State University saw a major COVID-19 outbreak among students at the start of the fall 2020 semester.

Nearly 200 faculty, staff, students and community members have signed an open letter urging Illinois State University to “mandate a COVID-19 vaccine” in the same way that the University of Illinois and Northern Illinois University have done.

On Friday, a top aide to the ISU president said they’ve already done that.

The open letter, which has been circulating this week, calls on ISU to take four specific actions to safeguard the health and safety of ISU and Bloomington-Normal community members as the fall semester approaches. First on the list is “Mandate a COVID-19 vaccine, with appropriate exemptions. … Mandating a COVID-19 vaccine will put ISU in the company of many other Illinois universities including DePaul University, Loyola University, Northern Illinois University, Northwestern University, and University of Illinois.”

It appears ISU has done exactly that. The U of I, for example, says there is no “exemption process” for the vaccine requirement. But U of I’s own guidance appears to allow for unvaccinated students to remain on campus; they would just have to be regularly tested instead. That’s similar to ISU, where students who haven’t shown proof of vaccination will have to be tested every week.

Katy Killian
Katy Killian, interim chief of staff to ISU President Terri Goss Kinzy.

NIU does offer exemptions—medical, religious, or personal—that require university approval. Those who are unvaccinated will have to be tested weekly, just like ISU plans to do.

This approach is similar to the rules laid out Thursday for federal employees and contractors. They will need to confirm they are vaccinated or be tested once or twice a week for the virus. Those who cannot attest to being vaccinated will also have to wear masks while on the job.

WGLT’s Charlie Schlenker spoke Friday with Katy Killian, interim chief of staff to ISU President Terri Goss Kinzy, about ISU’s approach to vaccine requirement.

WGLT: Why does ISU not have a vaccine mandate?

Killian: Actually, we are requiring vaccines. I think our approach is very closely aligned with what other schools in the state of Illinois—public institutions—are doing, where they are actually requiring vaccines as well.

Students are required to get a vaccine, and until you get one and provide us with proof, you do have to test. And failure to test will result in being referred to the appropriate discipline process. We will have more information about that provided to students, faculty and staff in the coming days.

But that is not actually a mandate.

It is a requirement. And it is very different than what we had suggested or required of students earlier in the summer, where we told students that they were expected to be vaccinated. They are now required to be vaccinated. We do have a very stringent testing requirement as well that students, faculty and staff will all be subject to in the fall.

You’re eliding, though, the central question: Why not have a requirement for them to be on campus to have the vaccine? Why not?

We do have a requirement for them to be on campus. Anyone who is on campus is required to have a vaccine.

That's not the case, though. They have to test if they don't have the vaccine, but they can still be on campus.

They can still be on campus, but they are required to have a vaccine if they are taking classes or working on campus. And until they can submit their vaccination records, they will test and participate in weekly on campus testing.

Why are you not imposing a requirement that they cannot be on campus, they cannot attend classes, they cannot be physically present at ISU, without a vaccine?

Well, I think in any requirement, there has to be some room for some flexibility and adaptability for students who may have medical reasons why they cannot, and faculty and staff who may have medical reasons. And we do have an accommodation process as indicated in the message that was provided to campus earlier this week.

But why are you not changing that to require them to be absent, if they do not have a vaccine? That that's the central question that you're still eliding.

Well, Charlie, I think because we need to provide some type of flexibility for students and faculty and staff who cannot.

We've already carved those out. There, of course, has to be a medical exemption. But for those who do not have a medical exemption, why are they still being allowed on campus?

Because I think we feel that we can address the safety and the health and safety of our campus community through testing. And I think through regular testing, we can get in front of potential outbreaks that could occur on campus, and students, faculty and staff will be held accountable for participating in the testing program.

How would you respond to the open letter that close to 200 people have signed, saying that you really ought to require vaccines?

We are certainly aware of the concerns, and as we have done throughout COVID we will listen and reevaluate our approach to COVID when necessary. We are always reviewing our approach to COVID and to the fall term. And you know, we are constantly looking at the data provided to us by public health officials to modify our plans if necessary. So we have modified our plans since June.

And, you know, we are in a place right now that we feel is very much in line with what is being done and what has been suggested to us by the IBHE and other areas. We have the support of our public health officials here locally, in terms of the direction that we are headed. And we will continue to do that throughout the fall semester and into this spring semester, if necessary.

… In McLean County, I think we’re at 48% vaccinated right now, of adults. And you know, we have a substantial transmission rate in McLean County. That's certainly not a situation that we want to be in. The university is reacting to where those numbers are.

And we are going to do everything we can to continue to promote the vaccination on campus. We're going to have vaccination clinics during move-in, during the fall semester that will be free to students. We’ll have multiple testing sites. We will communicate with students, faculty and staff on a very regular basis about the advantages of being vaccinated, about the requirement to be tested if they haven't submitted their evidence of their vaccination yet to the university. I think we will do everything that we can to make this as safe an environment as possible for the Redbird community and for the larger community.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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