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‘Mixed messaging’: NSHE students, staff react to contradicting COVID-19 vaccine expectations

A close up of a vial of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine being held upside down while a syringe pulls from it. The background is out of focus.
Lucia Starbuck
KUNR Public Radio

Nevada System of Higher Education staff members are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but students aren’t. KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck spoke to people on several campuses to see how they’re feeling.

Truckee Meadows Community College Student Body President Darian Richards usually gets a breakfast burrito and always a coffee at Cafe Verde on campus.

“Can I get a vanilla latte please?” Richards asked the person working at the cash register.

It was pretty quiet on campus because students are on winter break. But during the semester, “Usually the line is crazy. Everyone loves this cafe because the food is so good. It’s constantly busy. All of the tables are taken up,” Richards said.

When classes begin later this month, the restaurant will be bustling with people, and Richards won’t know who exactly is vaccinated other than the staff.

“I have an autoimmune disorder, so I’m immunocompromised. Going to in-person classes is uncomfortable. So I took mostly online classes this upcoming semester just to protect myself. I take care of my elderly grandmother and my disabled mother. And so I need to be careful about who I’m around,” Richards said.

Immunocompromised individuals are more likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19, according to the CDC, and unvaccinated people have a higher likelihood of contracting and spreading the virus.

NSHE students were required to show proof of immunization in order to enroll in spring semester courses due to an emergency regulation set by the Nevada Board of Health. However, when that regulation expired, lawmakers did not extend it.

“We have a situation where we have six in favor, and six opposed, so the motion does fail,” Assemblyman Steve Yeager said at the December Legislative Commission meeting, where the mandate for students failed to move forward on a party-line vote.

“At first, I was shocked when they voted, half and half. But then, after I started to think about it, this is the type of vote I would expect, seeing as how at our institution at the College of Southern Nevada (CSN), students are polarized on the subject altogether,” CSN Student Body President Zachary Johnigan said.

Johnigan said the student government sent out a survey in August to gauge how students felt about a vaccine requirement. Nearly 10,000 students responded in less than a week and responses were split. Personally, he doesn’t support a vaccine mandate for students.

“I believe that it should never be the choice of a public body, or institution, besides the individual to choose on what they should put inside their body,” Johnigan said.

Nevada college students are currently required to be immunized against other infections such as measles, rubella and diphtheria. As for the COVID-19 vaccine, Johnigan said some CSN students got it just so they could enroll in spring semester classes.

“Students thought that they would be able to attend the institution, ‘All I have to do is get the vaccine and we’re good,’ and then that’s not the case, so people are upset over that. People like stability. They don’t like to be jerked around as far as mandates and laws,” Johnigan said.

While students don’t need to show proof of immunization against COVID-19, nearly 380 NSHE staff members were terminated on New Year’s Eve for not being vaccinated. The NSHE Board of Regents could’ve extended or terminated the mandate last month, but deadlocked in a six-to-six vote, it stayed in place. At this point, about 21,000 employees across all NSHE institutions are vaccinated.

Alissa Surges is a lecturer in the English department at the University of Nevada, Reno. She said knowing other faculty are vaccinated gives her some peace of mind.

“That actually does help quite a bit, but it also feels kind of like a mixed message there, right? Like, okay, so staff all need to be vaccinated, but the students don’t?” Surges said.

There is a petition by the Nevada Faculty Alliance in support of reinstating a vaccine mandate for students, and it has about 3,800 signatures. As COVID-19 cases soar in Nevada, Surges worries that without the student mandate in place, there will be further disruptions to in-person learning.

“There is something about that in-person one-on-one, and the relationships, too, that we develop with our students who, obviously in a time of a pandemic, are typically experiencing greater degrees of depression, anxiety. And those of us in first-year writing often do help those students and give them extra resources on campus,” Surges said.

Even though she values the in-person experience, Surges has moved a lot of her instruction online.

Governor Steve Sisolak has said that the state will seek a vaccine mandate for Nevada college students through the legislative process, but that could take a while, and the spring semester starts this month.

As a note of disclosure, the Board of Regents to the Nevada System of Higher Education owns the license to this station, and all KUNR employees are NSHE employees.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning journalist covering politics, focusing on democracy and solutions for KUNR Public Radio. Her goal is to provide helpful and informative coverage for everyday Nevadans.
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