Problem SolversProblem Solvers Investigations


Pro-vaccine, anti-mandate: The backlash against Virginia college COVID rules

Posted at 8:16 AM, Aug 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-10 23:40:39-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Hundreds of parents and students across Virginia have joined forces to challenge mandated COVID-19 vaccinations at colleges and universities.

“This mandate is bad business,” Virginia Tech graduate student and alumna Devon Smith said. “It is asking people to make health decisions, medical decisions, without consulting their physicians.”

Smith, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 2006, left a full-time job and invested her savings to pursue her master’s degree at Virginia Tech. She said she just made the difficult decision to disenroll from her alma mater over the school's decision to require mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.

“I did not want to be a part of that game,” said Smith. "You're not even supposed to go on a diet without consulting your physician. You're not supposed to cut calories, introduce any supplements or over the counter drugs without consulting a physician and all of a sudden, there's this mass propaganda, that is telling everyone that they need to go to a local rec center, the local fire hall to get a vaccine that is still under an emergency use authorization and to not contact your physician. And something about that just didn't sit right with me."

Virginia Tech is one of dozens of universities and colleges across the Commonwealth mandating COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of admissions this year following an official opinion handed down April 26 by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.

“The advisory opinion that AG Herring issued back in April that said Virginia colleges and universities had the ability to require vaccinations for their students was really just guidance for schools, letting them know that, if they wanted to, they could require vaccines,” Charlotte P.L. Gomer, Director of Communications for the Office of the Attorney General, said. “That being said, each of the schools has made their own decision as to whether or not they would require their students to be vaccinated.”

“As we have seen over the past several months, vaccines clearly work, and especially in light of the Delta variant that is spreading rapidly, Attorney General Herring believes that it is in every single Virginian’s best interest to get the vaccine, keeping themselves, their families, and their communities safe and healthy,” Gomer added.

Schools are offering religious and medical exemptions and some schools like James Madison University and Old Dominion University are offering assumption of risk waivers. Most schools are requiring that unvaccinated students, faculty and staff be regularly tested for the virus.

“It is segregating the students and faculty who do not participate, for whatever reason. It is taking them out of the main population,” said Smith. "I am not against vaccines, and I have not ruled out taking it myself. My issue is with providing that medical information to the school at large.”

Keeping Peers Safe

VCU student Ellie Munnikhuysen said complying with VCU’s mandate made her feel like she was doing her part to keep her peers safe.

“I can understand saying they don't have a right to mandate it. But I also think, this is a university you are paying to go to, and so you will have to abide by their rules and the measures they're taking,” said Munnikhuysen. “With the sheer amount of kids that are there, it's just important to make sure that we're making all these measures to make sure everyone's safe and we don't have another outbreak, especially with the Delta variant kind of seems to be going rampant lately. So, I think it's really important."

'A Gut Punch'

“It’s admirable if someone is willing to take on that risk to themselves, to benefit others. But it's still not right to force someone to do that,” parent Mark Leone said.

Mark Leone is taking that message online.

“It was a gut punch," Leone said. “It just took all my freedom away.”

That was the reaction the father of three had after learning his college-aged son and daughter would be required to be vaccinated this school year.

Leone and other parents started a GoFundMe to cover legal representation to challenge the legality of the Attorney General’s opinion in an effort to appeal the mandates on campuses across Virginia. It’s raised more than $23,000 and has been shared more than 1,000 times.

“Even if you grant that there's an emergency, we can't just throw out the Constitution, even though we have to be thoughtful about this and balance individual rights and responsibilities against the rights of the state to coerce people and to require things that interfere with people's freedom,” said Leone.

Lawyers representing the group have sent letters to more than two dozen private and public higher education institutions across the Commonwealth and have submitted FOIA requests on behalf of the group to end the mandates.

CBS 6 reached out to 26 of the schools the law firm reached out to that are enforcing mandates. Here are the responses we’ve received back:

University of Lynchburg

“The University of Lynchburg has a COVID-19 Taskforce that has met continuously sing=ce the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020. The group is guided in its decision-making by the CDC and the Virginia Department of Health. And, we routinely confer with public health experts in our community.

We have been overly cautious throughout the pandemic and as a result, are perhaps the safest campus in Virginia. We opened for the fall 2020 semester and were able to remain open for the entire academic year.

As we welcome students back for the 2021 academic year this week, we are approaching 100 percent compliance among all students, faculty, and staff who are adhering to our vaccine mandate.

At this time, we do not plan to change our protocols regarding the vaccine. Other safety precautions such as requiring distancing and masking are subject to change as the situation demands.

Currently, we are requiring any member of our community who has not been fully vaccinated to wear a mask, practice safe physical distancing, and undergo routine testing. Only those who have been granted the medical or religious waiver will be permitted on Camus under those conditions — masking, distancing, testing.

All visitors are also required to wear masks and practice safe physical distancing if they have not been fully vaccinated.

With the emergence of the more virulent Delta variant of the virus, we are urging increased caution and recommending the everyone have a mask with them at all times and wear it if they feel the least bit uncomfortable.

We feel strongly that the vaccine is the surest way to keep our campus and community safe.”

-Michael J. Jones
Vice President, Communications and Marketing
University of Lynchburg

Virginia Union University

“At this time, Virginia Union University does not intend to make changes to its policy regarding Covid-19 vaccination.”

-Angela Hayes
Director, Communications

University of Virginia

“The University of Virginia’s vaccination policy is supported by an official opinion from the Attorney General of Virginia, which states clearly that colleges and Universities do have the authority to require vaccines that have received an Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. We are encouraged that 93% of students have complied with our vaccination policy, in addition to 89% of UVA employees who are fully vaccinated as well. Thanks to these high vaccination rates, we are looking forward to an academic year where our community is able to live, learn, and work together in Charlottesville safely.”

-Brian Coy
University of Virginia Spokesperson

Virginia Military Institute

“VMI’s decision to require COVID vaccinations for our cadets has not been taken lightly. Our Board of Visitors Executive Committee and the superintendent have met with individuals who have advocated against the requirement. However, the VMI experience is very different than any other higher education experience. VMI is committed to providing the full range of activities for cadets including 100% in-person classes and military training. The best way for us to provide this experience and to ensure a healthy and safe living and learning environment is to require each cadet to be vaccinated.”

-Bill Wyatt
Colonel, Virginia Militia
Director of Communications & Marketing
Virginia Military Institute

Virginia Commonwealth University

"VCU's decision to require the COVID-19 vaccine is consistent with what hundreds of other universities and colleges are doing across the country to combat the pandemic. It is also consistent with recommendations from the American College Health Association and is part of VCU's plan to follow guidance from the CDC and the Virginia Department of Health. As of Aug. 6, more than 70 percent of students have reported vaccinations. Students may request medical and religious exemptions."

-Michael Porter
Associate Vice President for Public Affairs

Radford University

The school provided us with a July email sent to students on the "rules of the road" on required vaccination documentation or exemption information.

Union Presbyterian Seminary

“At this time, we have no plans to change our policy [] of requiring proof of vaccination for students, faculty, staff, and visitors to our Richmond and Charlotte campuses. The policy will be updated as circumstances change. Vaccinated faculty and staff returned to campus August 2 for the first time since the pandemic necessitated we move operations online in March 2020.”

-Mike Frontiero
Director of Communications

At this time, the following schools didn't provide a statement regarding their mandates for the coming academic year:

  • Bridgewater College
  • Eastern Mennonite University
  • Hampton University
  • Mary Baldwin University
  • Marymount University
  • Randolph College
  • Randolph-Macon College
  • Roanoke College
  • Virginia Wesleyan University
  • Washington & Lee University
  • Sweet Briar College
  • Christopher Newport University
  • College of William & Mary
  • George Mason University
  • James Madison University
  • Longwood University
  • Old Dominion University
  • University of Mary Washington
  • Virginia Tech (waiting for a spokesperson)

“I support the colleges and universities mandating shots," Governor Ralph Northam said. "You know, we're all vectors. When we haven't been vaccinated, we can carry the virus and as long as there are vectors, like you and me, if we haven't been vaccinated, this is how viruses survive, they mutate.”

“My mom was a nurse, she worked in the COVID unit. I've seen it first-hand how badly it affects other people, and I don't want anyone to experience that. And, I think like the bare minimum, it's free, it's a vaccine it's the least I could do. It's very fast and easy and so like, I just think that that's, you know, an important thing to go forward with,” said Munnikhuysen.

“If the vaccines are so effective, that it justifies forcing someone against their will, coercing them into getting the vaccine, because it's just so important because they're that effective, then why aren't they effective against the person that had the vaccine?” asked Leone.

"One of the reasons for people not getting vaccinated, namely people who aren't strictly anti-vax but just are a little bit uncertain about whether they want to get vaccinated, that when there is full approval is full approval, several people a certain percentage have said when the vaccines get the full approval of the FDA, I would feel more comfortable in doing that,” the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said. “And, what also will happen is that once you get full approval, local authorities will feel more comfortable in doing local mandates for vaccines.”

The University of Richmond is the only school in the Richmond metro that “believes it is appropriate to wait for full FDA approval of at least one of the vaccines before requiring students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated,” according to the school's Fall 2021 Vaccine Requirements.

“I'm glad to see them exercising a little caution there. If it's done the way that all other FDA approvals have been done. Sure, it would mean a lot to me,” said Leone.

Leone said he was not anti-vaccine, he's anti-mandate. Smith agrees.

“I am pro-vaccine; I am pro medicine. But it needs to be done the right way,” said Smith.

Smith said until then she won’t be completing her master’s degree at the only school she knows.

"I love the school. But I do not like what the administration has done recently," said Smith. “If you're going to put private restrictions on an educational institution, then you need to lose your funding. You can't be using state and federal funding if you're going to exclude such a large portion of the population,” said Smith. “So, I am very hopeful that common sense will prevail and that we'll get on with our lives because there is no such thing as life without some kind of risk.”

“There's a serious scientific debate going on right now,” said Leone. “The CDC is ignoring, for example, the reality of natural immunity. We can easily challenge some of the policy-driven things that are being said by the health authorities, not by untrained people like me, but by experts with tremendous credentials. So, the schools I think, need to enter into that debate or they need to not mandate. I think this in-between of sort of blindly picking one side of that debate and mandating that that side must be right, everyone must follow it, I think that's wrong.”

Watch for Problem Solvers Investigations Tuesdays on CBS 6 News at 11 p.m. Click here for more of our investigations or to submit a tip to the Problem Solvers.

Find unique, award-winning stories every day on CBS 6 News:

💰Mondays: CBS 6 Gives
📁Tuesdays: CBS 6 Problem Solvers Investigations
👔Wednesdays: Wayne's World
🙋‍♀️Thursdays: Heroes Among Us
🏅Thursdays: Beyond the Roster
✋Fridays: I Have a Story