With SLCC requiring students get vaccinated, more than half of Utah’s public colleges now have a mandate

Salt Lake Community College recently joined the other schools requiring that students get immunized against COVID-19.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Community College Redwood Road campus is pictured Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. The school will be requiring that students get vaccinated against COVID-19 for spring semester 2022.

Add Salt Lake Community College to the growing list of universities in Utah that will require students get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The announcement from the school, which has 27,000 students and 10 campuses throughout Salt Lake County, now tips the scales on the issue. With it, more than half of the public higher education institutions here — or five of the eight — will mandate the vaccine.

“With all of us doing what we can, when we can, we will ensure that SLCC continues to be a safe place where all can focus on learning and growth,” wrote the school’s President Deneece Huftalin in a message to campus.

The other colleges in the state that will be requiring the vaccine announced their plans earlier this month. Those are the University of Utah, Utah State University, Weber State University and Utah Valley University.

The mandates at all of the schools will include only students — not faculty or staff — at this point. But there will be further discussions about that, as well as the logistics of distributing shots and providing students a way to prove they’ve been immunized. And only those enrolled in in-person courses will need to get their shots; those taking only online classes don’t have to meet the requirement.

Additionally, there will be medical, religious and personal exemptions permitted, as all public colleges currently allow for other vaccine requirements, such as the shot for measles, mumps and rubella. That’s required by the state.

The schools, now including SLCC, said students will likely be required to show proof of vaccination or an approved exception form before spring classes start in January. Huftalin said that the school intends to make it so students won’t be able to register for their courses if they do not.

“We’re grateful for your patience and flexibility, and appreciate all who have been taking precautions to slow the spread of the virus,” she added. “While this vaccination effort gets underway, we ask that you continue to be diligent in wearing face coverings while on campus, especially in our classrooms and other learning spaces where social distancing is difficult.”

Under state law, though, colleges here cannot have a mask mandate.

The Republican-dominated Utah Legislature has prohibited campuses from requiring face coverings. It had also originally banned public K-12 schools and colleges from requiring the coronavirus vaccine for attendance.

But that rule only applied to vaccines being used under emergency authorization.

On Aug. 23 — the day before classes started at SLCC this fall — the Food and Drug Administration granted full authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That opened the door for Utah universities to mandate that specific vaccine, if administrators want.

The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines still cannot be mandated because they remain under emergency authorization. Students, though, don’t have to get a specific shot to fulfill the requirement.

With the addition of SLCC, the five public colleges in the state requiring the vaccine represent 159,000 of the 189,000 higher education students in Utah. That’s roughly 84%.

The three remaining public colleges without an immunization mandate — Southern Utah University, Dixie State University and Snow College — are all south of Utah County and in more conservative areas of the state. Administrators at those have said they’re undecided on a vaccine requirement for the coronavirus.

The vaccine mandates, though, have surprisingly garnered the support of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson — all of whom are Republicans and have previously spoken against efforts to require people get the shot.

The mandates also have the favor of the Utah Board of Higher Education, which encouraged the eight public colleges in the state to consider vaccine policies for their students.

Harris Simmons, chair of the board, wrote: “The Board views vaccinations as an effective method to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep our campuses open.” Ultimately, though, he noted that it would be left to each campus to decide.

Before the announcements of the public institutions, one other school — Westminster College in Salt Lake City — had instituted a vaccine requirement. It did so prior to the full authorization of the Pfizer vaccine, and was able to because it is a private institution. The mandate there applies to both students and staff, and applies midway through this fall semester.

Both Westminster and Brigham Young University in Provo, also a private college, which is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are requiring masks. They are exempt from the Utah Legislature’s ban on that, which applies only to public colleges in the state. But BYU will not be requiring the vaccine.

Similarly, only one of the eight public technical colleges in Utah — Davis Technical College — will require the vaccine.

But most schools, regardless of whether it’s required, are offering free vaccine clinics for students to get the shot. At SLCC, those sites can be found on the college’s blog.

The community college has had 46 cases of COVID among students and 24 among staff since fall semester began.