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More community colleges are mandating coronavirus vaccination

Montgomery and Prince George’s colleges have embraced the requirement. But Virginia’s two-year colleges have not.

Scene from Montgomery College's campus in Rockville, Md., in December 2020. The college is one of many two-year schools that are starting to require coronavirus vaccination. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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One by one, Maryland’s community colleges are starting to require students to get vaccinated against the coronavirus — months after the state university system adopted a sweeping vaccine mandate.

But Virginia’s community colleges are not requiring student vaccination. Instead, they are encouraging it. That includes Northern Virginia Community College, where the first lady, Jill Biden, teaches English on the Alexandria campus.

The difference between policies in the neighboring states illustrates a quiet debate that has been unfolding nationally among the public two-year colleges. These schools, hit hard by enrollment drops during the pandemic, have been slower on the whole to embrace vaccine mandates than four-year colleges and universities.

Community colleges at a crossroads: Enrollment is plummeting, but political clout is growing

Montgomery College, in Maryland’s most populous county, is a case in point. It announced a vaccine mandate last month, with employees required to show proof of their shots by Nov. 8 and students by Jan. 7. The college, which has more than 17,000 students, plans to allow some medical and religious exemptions. That is standard practice. Those with exemptions would be required to undergo weekly testing if they come to campus.

The college’s Sept. 16 announcement came nearly five months after the University System of Maryland had issued a vaccine mandate for its faculty, staff and students. The system includes the University of Maryland at College Park and numerous other public four-year schools.

Montgomery College interim president Charlene Dukes, who took office Aug. 7, said the college’s plans have evolved since the spring in response to pandemic conditions, including the surge of the delta variant. The college does not have any students living on campus and continues to operate online to a significant extent. Only about a quarter of its classes are face to face, Dukes said, and masks are required indoors.

The college has not observed any major spikes of infection connected to its campuses since the fall semester began. Even so, the college determined that a vaccine mandate was needed in a county where vaccination is widespread.

“We want, to the extent that we can, to be in concert with our colleagues and our partners in Montgomery County,” Dukes said. “If we protect ourselves, then we protect everyone.”

Harry Zarin, president of the college’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said full-time faculty strongly support the mandate.

“In general, we want to be safe when we come back to campus,” Zarin said.

Vaccination rates among professors are believed to be very high, he said. Even so, the faculty is anxious to avoid infection in the classroom.

“If we pick it up, we’re bringing that home to our families, and that’s not a good thing,” Zarin said.

Prince George’s Community College will require students to show proof of vaccination by Oct. 21. To help them comply, the college will offer free vaccines at its Largo campus. Colleges in Anne Arundel and Howard counties are also taking steps to require student vaccination, according to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.

“I anticipate more to come,” said Brad Phillips, executive director of the association. The state’s 16 community colleges are all run separately, so decisions vary from place to place. Weighing heavily in those calculations is the broad spectrum of students the colleges serve. As open-access institutions, they are reluctant to take measures that might turn potential students away. Among those potential students are unvaccinated adults.

“The colleges are implementing several strategies, not just vaccine mandates, to encourage people to get vaccinated but also offer some form of educational opportunities for those that have yet to do so,” Phillips said.

Across the Potomac River, Virginia’s community colleges are run as a system. And that system has decided not to impose vaccine mandates. Its stance on the issue contrasts with requirements at George Mason University, the University of Virginia and other public universities in the state.

“We are encouraging but not mandating the vaccine for our students,” Jeffrey Kraus, assistant vice chancellor for public relations for the Virginia Community College System, wrote in an email. “We are not mandating the vaccine for the same reason that most community colleges aren’t: We do not have residence halls, nor the health clinics that support them, on our campuses. Creating and safely maintaining student health records is an expensive and labor-intensive enterprise. In fact, we do not collect any student health records for incoming students.”

Kraus noted that the college system’s faculty and staff are subject to an order from Gov. Ralph Northam (D) that requires state employees to show proof of vaccination or a weekly negative coronavirus test.

Nationally, the Chronicle of Higher Education lists more than 1,000 colleges and universities with vaccine mandates. The total jumped after federal regulators in August gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Among those with mandates, according to analysis of the Chronicle list, are more than 185 community colleges from 15 states. That is a relatively small share of roughly 950 community colleges nationwide.

Many Republican-led states are opposed to vaccine mandates in public higher education. But even in states where vaccine mandates are common, some community colleges avoid them or have been slow to adopt them. That is true in states such as New Jersey and California.

Colleges want students to get a coronavirus vaccine. But they’re split on requiring the shots.

Many community colleges are cautious about taking stances on divisive issues — and vaccine mandates are controversial in some places.

“One thing I notice is, they try to stay out of political fights,” said Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar with the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University. “They really are trying to be nonpartisan.”

Jenkins said the colleges also are eager to sign up more students, regardless of their vaccination status, after suffering steep enrollment declines during the pandemic.

“In general they’re access-oriented,” he said. “They try not to put any barriers.”