KU faculty has petition with about 240 names seeking stronger COVID actions; Girod says vaccination efforts need to get more aggressive

photo by: Associated Press

University of Kansas Chancellor Douglas Girod testifies during a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.

Updated at 4:47 p.m. Monday

About 240 KU faculty members have signed a petition asking for a vaccine mandate — or as much of one as state law will allow — along with several other stronger COVID protocols for campus.

“Although this requirement may be controversial, its efficacy is undeniable, and it should be implemented in ways and to the extent legally possible,” read the petition, which was delivered to KU Chancellor Douglas Girod and other administrators Monday afternoon.

As of Monday afternoon, the petition by KU faculty had about 240 signatures of faculty members. KU has about 1,500 faculty members, according to statistics posted by the university.

University of Kansas leaders previously have expressed concerns that a state law prohibiting the use of “vaccine passports” would make it difficult or impossible for KU to require vaccinations of its students and staff.

But Town Peterson — a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology and an organizer of the petition drive — said he thought university attorneys could perhaps successfully challenge the state law. He also thinks there are ways that KU could greatly incentivize vaccinations without running afoul of state law.

For example, Peterson is floating the idea of requiring unvaccinated people who want to attend a campus activity, such as a sporting event, to show that they have received a negative COVID test a certain number of days before the event.

“I want to see the chancellor come forward with a plan that would at least greatly incentivize vaccination,” Peterson said. “I don’t think we have seen that.”

Shortly before the faculty group delivered the petition to Girod, the chancellor gave a weekly video address to the university community on COVID matters. In that address, Girod said KU needed to become more aggressive in getting students vaccinated, but didn’t forecast whether KU would be taking steps beyond hosting vaccination clinics.

He said KU implemented a new mask mandate, which began Monday, after the pandemic threw another “curveball” in the form of the Delta variant.

“It is not where we expected to be,” Girod said of the mask mandate. “We knew we had a vaccine and we thought we had our answer. … It is still the answer. We just have to be much more aggressive to get there.”

A spokeswoman for the university didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment on the petition and its demands.

In addition to a vaccine requirement, the petition called for several other actions. They include:

• A social-distancing mandate that would limit the size of classes, meetings, convocations, fraternity and sorority events and other such functions.

• Contact tracing planning that would create an office where KU community members could voluntarily report a positive test and help KU officials develop a full list of people they came in contact with.

• A guaranteed leave policy that “would likely mean paid sick time for employees, and arrangements for distance-based learning for students.”

• Choice of teaching modality for faculty and students. Citing new information about breakthrough infections related to the Delta variant, the group is asking that faculty and students “be given flexibility to make learning and instructional choices that prioritize their health and welfare.”

In his video address to campus, which came before the petition was delivered, Girod gave no indication that he thought a hybrid or remote learning strategy was going to be deployed anytime soon.

Girod said wearing masks and “pushing the vaccine” should be enough to significantly bend the curve of infections.

“We don’t need to go to a full shutdown,” he said.

He also said that an increase in vaccinations could make the mask mandate fairly short-lived. He predicted that the mask mandate may be allowed to expire before the end of the year, “but only if we do the things we’ve been talking about,” which include wearing masks now and getting more people vaccinated.

Girod urged vaccinated students to begin selling the benefits of vaccinations to their unvaccinated friends.

“Friends don’t let friends not have shots,” Girod said.

Girod, however, stopped well short of indicating that he would be in support of requiring vaccines. University leaders have said they interpreted state law to prohibit a vaccine mandate because of the law that prohibits state agencies from requiring vaccine passports.

However, David Roediger, a professor of American Studies, said there are many people who believe the state law doesn’t prohibit KU from requiring vaccines. The state law is written to apply to all state agencies, but technically KU isn’t considered an agency. It is a state entity that is not controlled by the governor or the Legislature, but rather by the Kansas Board of Regents. Plus, Roediger said any vaccine policy likely wouldn’t be a true mandate because it likely would allow people to attend events or receive services if they could produce a negative COVID test.

Regardless, it is likely that KU could pay a political price for implementing a vaccine policy against the wishes of the Republican-controlled Legislature. But KU shouldn’t be deterred by those considerations, Roediger said.

“It is the responsibility of the flagship state university to stand up for science and public health,” he said. “The virus doesn’t respond to political posturing.”

Roediger said it was particularly important for KU to be a leader in requiring vaccines, given that the university is led by a medical doctor and also operates a medical school. Rather, Roediger said some of Girod’s comments — including ones made Monday about the possibility of the mask mandate being short-lived — indicated he’s thinking differently than many faculty members.

“I think we are on very different pages,” Roediger said. “I think many of us believe the administration hasn’t led on this issue and has taken far too optimistic of a view on this.”

KU administrators, though, have said they were pleased at how the university community responded to the pandemic last school year and pointed to the absence of major outbreaks and other such incidents that occurred at other college campuses. On Monday, Dr. Steve Stites, vice chancellor of clinical affairs at the KU Medical Center and chief medical officer for the KU Health System, was part of Girod’s weekly video conference on COVID. Stites said he was impressed with how the Lawrence campus dealt with the pandemic last school year.

“KU did a great job,” Stites said.

KU has been using a pandemic advisory board to help it craft policies and make other decisions related to the pandemic. KU leaders have said that board, which includes multiple physicians and Douglas County’s public health officer, remains in place and active.

In addition to the faculty petition, a student-led petition has been created online. It is asking KU to adopt a policy that requires students and faculty to show proof of COVID vaccination or wear a mask. That petition, which began in late July, has about 1,100 signatures. Unlike the faculty petition, it appears to be open to sign by anyone, regardless of whether they are a student or affiliated with KU.

In his video address, Girod touched on several other COVID topics of note. They included:

• Girod said KU thought at least 40% to 50% of KU students were vaccinated, but those numbers are from when they last were on campus. He’s hopeful that number is higher as they return to campus.

• The university thinks well over 70% of faculty and staff are vaccinated. It wasn’t clear how KU was gathering its information on the vaccination rate of faculty, staff and students.

• KU will provide “multiple opportunities” for students to get vaccinated when they return to campus. “Vaccination is our out,” Girod said.


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