Colleges That Said Vaccination Skipping Was Okay: Never Mind

The portrait of CSU Chancellor Tony Frank that accompanied his statement about vaccinations for the fall of 2021.
The portrait of CSU Chancellor Tony Frank that accompanied his statement about vaccinations for the fall of 2021. Colorado State University
When we researched our April 21 story about COVID-19 vaccination rules at major colleges and universities in Colorado, representatives from thirteen of the fifteen schools we contacted said that shots would not be mandated for students enrolled for the fall 2021 semester, including the University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado State University and Colorado College.

Eight days later, all three have done a complete about-face, announcing that vaccinations will be mandatory — with cover provided by the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

"After discussions with our institution presidents and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), we think it’s appropriate to expect our colleges and universities to require students to be fully vaccinated this fall," CDHE Executive Director Angie Paccione said in a statement released April 27. "With the recent uptick in cases and the rise in variants, we want to do what we can to protect the health and welfare of our students, faculty, staff and communities."

Signs of this switch were evident earlier this month. When we contacted the University of Denver in mid-April about its vaccination policy, we were referred to an April 2 letter to stakeholders from Chancellor Jeremy Haefner that read in part: "Please note that DU is not mandating the COVID-19 vaccine at this time, although we are strongly encouraging anyone living, learning or working on our campus to receive the vaccination."

On April 20, however, DU executed a 180, stating that the university "will require all undergraduate and graduate students living, learning or working on campus to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 before returning to campus for the fall 2021 term. Proof of vaccination or exemption will be required before the start of fall term; we will provide more details on this process soon. We are also considering whether to require the vaccine for all faculty and staff, and that decision will be shared as soon as possible."

As of April 21, CSU was just as definitive as DU had been earlier. "COVID-19 vaccines are not mandated for employees or students," the school told us. "CSU is strongly urging all students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated. Vaccines may be required for employees working in certain environments including our Health Network, and COVID testing and screening staff. Because COVID vaccines have received an emergency use authorization from the federal government, and due to Colorado law stipulations, some options exist for opting out of the vaccine within the confines of the law."

Cut to yesterday, April 28, when CSU issued two notices explaining that vaccinations are now a must — the first from the university as a whole and the second under the signature of Chancellor Tony Frank. "This action is in accord with our belief that the science around COVID-19 and the vaccines is clear and compelling, and it is in line with other typical, existing vaccine requirements for students on our campuses," Frank wrote. "We believe it is also in keeping with the best guidance received from federal, state, and local public health authorities and supports our goal of returning to in-person learning as soon as possible — and to the fullest extent possible — under public health guidelines."

The CSU announcement also pertains to Colorado State University Pueblo, whose spokesperson had earlier divulged: "As a public institution, CSU Pueblo will follow state guidelines and the Board of Health rule for vaccinations. ... If the COVID vaccine is required by CDPHE for higher education at a later date, CSU Pueblo would require it (just as we do Measles, Mumps and Rubella [MMR], etc.), though — per state law — anyone may file an exemption."

The responses we received from Colorado College and CU Boulder for our April 21 report at least gave both institutions some wiggle room. "Colorado College is encouraging all students, faculty, and staff to receive the vaccination as soon as they are eligible. If the state requires vaccination, we will of course require it," said the Colorado Springs school. As for CU Boulder, "At this time, all of the vaccines are under emergency use authorization and there are no requirements to get the vaccine. We’ll continue to monitor guidelines on the COVID-19 vaccine and evaluate the legal implications of a requirement," a university statement noted.

Colorado College announced its vaccine mandate on Monday, April 26. CU Boulder did so on April 28, around the same time that CSU pivoted.

All of this double-clutching makes Fort Lewis College look downright decisive. The Durango school was the first major college in Colorado to make vaccinations for fall 2021 students mandatory. It announced the policy on April 2, without waiting for bigger facilities to figure out what the hell they were doing.

But one higher-ed system in the state — the Colorado Community College System — is still going its own way. On April 28, Chancellor Joe Garcia announced that "CCCS will continue to follow recommendations of health authorities, but does not intend on mandating COVID-19 vaccines for all students, faculty, or staff for the Fall 2021 semester."

Not yet, anyhow.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts