Portland Community College is approaching a showdown this week over whether to require COVID-19 vaccinations for returning students, faculty and staff.
On June 21, Portland Community College President Mark Mitsui announced that, unlike all of Oregon’s four-year public universities, PCC would not require COVID shots as a condition for returning to campus.
“Because vaccination access and hesitancy looks different across racial lines, vaccination requirements create a barrier to educational access that will disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC),” the college explained in a statement. “This would not reflect PCC’s institutional values of equity, inclusion and belonging.”
WHO WANTS TO CHANGE IT
At a special PCC board meeting Aug. 10, former Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman proposed that the board reconsider mandating vaccinations. Saltzman’s proposal, first reported by the Portland Tribune, passed by a narrow 4-3 vote.
“We have a moral obligation to protect the health of our employees and students and a global obligation to lean into this pandemic,” says Saltzman, who joined the PCC board in 2019. “I am most concerned about the rapid increase of pediatric [hospital] admissions. A lot of our employees and students have children, and those under 12 years old are sitting ducks.”
WHO RESISTS THE CHANGE
Backing Mitsui’s earlier position, board chair Mohamed Alyajouri, a health care administrator who oversees two clinics for Oregon Health & Science University, led opposition to putting a vaccine mandate on the board agenda. In addition to equity issues, Alyajouri points to a staff report, which found that 85% of returning students will be vaccinated when classes start in the fall, far in excess of Gov. Kate Brown’s goal of 70%. So there may not be much greater efficacy in demanding that people get shots. Alyajouri emphasizes that he and the rest of the board are pro-vaccine; he just thinks a mandate could do more harm than good. “It won’t get us to a higher rate of vaccination,” he says. “It will just push away those who weren’t getting the vaccine anyway.”
WHY IT MATTERS
PCC is the state’s largest higher-education institution, serving 60,000 full- and part-time students. Lane Community College has mandated vaccinations for the fall, and many big city K-12 school districts are doing so as well, as the Delta variant rips through unvaccinated America. Officials at OHSU projected last week that Delta infections would place more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients in hospitals by Labor Day, outstripping the state’s supply of hospital beds by at least 400.
Although the PCC faculty and classified unions have not yet taken a formal position on the issue, Michelle DuBarry, a spokeswoman for the faculty union, says her sense is that employees want PCC to act to protect their health. “We have been hearing strongly from a lot of members who feel strongly about a mandate,” DuBarry says.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
When the board meets Aug. 19, Saltzman says he will push hard to mandate vaccinations by January—it’s too late for the fall. He is working on rallying support from medical experts and other elected officials. Says Saltzman, “I’m going to take this to the wire.”