Fall Term plan announced, full in-person return to campus

Students, faculty and staff will be returning to in-person living and learning this Fall Term, announced by President Mark Burstein on April 28. The Lawrence Pandemic Planning Team (LPPT) worked together with colleagues and public health experts to create the Fall Term plan. 

According to Burstein’s email, the decision was “grounded in the guiding principles that have framed our planning from the pandemic’s inception: to protect the health and safety of our community; to sustain our academic mission; and to support faculty, staff, and students.” 

Additionally, Burstein’s email stated that all students living or accessing campus are required to be fully vaccinated beginning this summer. However, exceptions will be made for medical, religious, or “personal conviction” reasons. Burstein also said that the vaccine is “highly encouraged” for faculty and staff. 

Assistant to the President Christyn Abaray said that many medical experts and peer institutions were consulted before finalizing the Fall Term plan. Throughout the process, the LPPT was focused on the health and safety of the Lawrence community while continuing to carry out the mission to “deliver learning to students.” According to Abaray, the LPPT felt that with the current U.S vaccine distribution and the desire to be together, in-person living and learning was the best option. 

“We’re all missing the sense of belonging, the sense of connection, so in the safest way possible, we want that to happen,” Abaray said. 

Based on an anonymous survey of 90 current students, 84.4% agree with the decision to return to in-person living and learning, 11.1% disagree, and 4.4% provided an individualized response. Additionally, based on the same survey, 91.1% of students feel either very safe or somewhat safe returning to in-person classes, whereas 8.9% feel either somewhat unsafe or very unsafe. 

Junior Bella Sgriccia expressed concern for international students regarding the Fall Term plan. Sgriccia is worried that, because the pandemic has made it more difficult to obtain visas, international students who are unable to obtain visas will be forced to defer or will not be able to attend with the return of in-person classes. Additionally, Sgriccia is worried that the vaccine requirement will also limit international students.  

“Not all countries have access to vaccines; we have to remember that vaccines are still scarce or unavailable in other parts of the world,” Sgriccia said.  “If we were to make the COVID vaccine necessary for all students, I believe that international students should be able to receive a vaccine when they reach the United States if they are unable to obtain a vaccine in their home countries.” 

According to Abaray, Associate Dean of Students for International Student Services Leah McSorley is working with Wellness Services on the details regarding the vaccine requirement for international students. McSorley explained that Lawrence will assist international students who are unable to get the vaccine before arriving once they arrive on-campus.  

Additionally, several students expressed opinions regarding the vaccine requirement. Junior Jessica Toncler feels good about the return to in-person living and learning and has few concerns about the Fall Term plan. However, Toncler was confused as to how “personal conviction” would be interpreted and why faculty and staff are not required to be vaccinated.  

“The faculty and staff interact with each other and the students daily, as well as travel off-campus to their homes and families,” Toncler said. “It seems to me that it would be imperative that they are also vaccinated.” 

Abaray said that the main reason for the difference in this requirement is legal questions regarding the mandating of the vaccine for employees. The LPPT is currently investigating the legality of mandating the vaccine for faculty and staff. 

Junior Alee Aragon echoed Toncler’s concern for the option to opt out of the vaccine due to “personal conviction.” Aragon believes that the vaccine should be required aside from medical or religious reasons and that this concept of “personal conviction” is unclear. 

“The campus has struggled as it is to enforce COVID-19 policies at times during the pandemic, and I see that [personal conviction] loophole causing issues,” Aragon stated. 

Abaray said that the phrase “personal conviction” appears in Wisconsin state law as an exception for all vaccines for students in K-12. Additionally, this term has been used at Lawrence in reference to any “mandated” vaccines for at least five years, said Abaray.  

“This isn’t new to COVID; we’re mirroring language that we already use for all other vaccines that we require students to have to come to Lawrence,” Abaray said. 

The LPPT is currently in contact with institutions that use similar language to work to determine the best way to interpret “personal conviction” and to consider if and when things will change. Abaray also noted that they have heard from members of the Lawrence community voicing a variety of stances on the “personal conviction” clause, and it’s important to “navigate” multiple perspectives.