GREAT FALLS — Last week, Rutgers University in New Jersey made headlines when it announced that all students returning to campus for the fall 2021 semester must first have received a COVID-19 vaccine. The university stated that students must show proof of vaccination, and all three vaccines currently approved for use in the U.S. are acceptable. Students may request a medical or religious-based exemption, but this was big news because Rutgers is the first university to publicly announce their plans for such a requirement.
So, MTN News reached out to Montana school officials to see if a similar requirement was a possibility. Before we get to their answers, we also looked at current vaccine requirements in the state. Both the state of Montana and the Montana University System already have their own immunization requirements. As do private schools like the University of Providence, whom we spoke to about this vaccine as well.
“We haven’t made a decision, but we have a team of individuals from the University’s President’s Coronavirus Task Force that’s going to be diving into that topic as we look at the coming months and certainly the next academic year,” said Brittany Budeski, Registrar and COVID-19 Response Coordinator at the University of Providence in Great Falls. “Although we haven’t made a decision on it, because we know the importance, we certainly do recommend that all members of our community receive the vaccination.”
Private schools like UP will be mostly free to make their own decisions about vaccine requirements. For example, Providence already requires that students come to campus having already received the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella. Budeski says that the University follows state laws when deciding on and implementing all such requirements, and they also allow religious exemptions.
The Montana University System is a unique case. The system is made up of 16 universities and colleges across the Treasure State, and when it comes to making decisions during COVID-19, they have resorted to a bit of a hybrid approach.
“I’ll be the first person to say that campuses, they know their students, they know their faculty and staff, they know their communities best, but we have been really successful through this entire pandemic in working as a system,” explained M.U.S. Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education, Brock Tessman. “So, the Healthy M.U.S. Task Force, the Board of Regents will continue to kind of set the parameters. I think there will be a lot of coordination and within those parameters, campuses will have flexibility in certain ways. But we have taken a pretty coordinated approach, and I think it’s worked out. It’s been in the interest of the students and of the campuses in general.”
Tessman elaborated on that point, explaining that, because the system’s campuses are scattered throughout the state, planning for the 2021 fall semester will likely take into account how those individual counties where the campuses are located are doing in regards to COVID-19 caseload, vaccination rates, etc.
But, when it comes to requiring the vaccine on those campuses, it’s not something that’s currently a top priority for consideration by the Task Force or the Board of Regents.
“Right now, I have to say, our focus is on getting shots in arms of all the people who want the vaccine,” said Tessman. “We’re not really thinking about the requirements, we’re just thinking about supply and distribution and holding as many clinics as possible. Our campuses have been distribution centers. Right now, I think, in Bozeman and Missoula and other places, our campuses are a huge partner with the community and the state to get the vaccine out there and into arms.”
So, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that some colleges and universities in Montana will add a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for students returning to campus in the fall, but Tessman also made note of the vastly different worlds that Montana and New Jersey exist in. Both M.U.S. officials and University of Providence officials plan to meet in May to discuss what the summer and the upcoming semester will look like for students, faculty, and staff.
For UP, the turnaround is abruptly short.
“Essentially what the University has decided is we will remain intact with all current protocol related to COVID through the end of this semester,” said Budeski. “The semester ends on April 30, commencement is May 1, so that following Monday, work begins for preparation for the next academic year.”