Students and staff with opposing views on the University of the Virgin Islands’ recent COVID vaccine mandate agreed Friday night on one thing: they all want the university’s campuses, and the people on them, to be safe.
They just have different ideas on how that can be accomplished.
A Zoom forum hosted by the University’s Association of Black Journalists offered a platform for the dialogue, which has continued over social media, radio and throughout the student community since an announcement made by the UVI administration on June 25.
“After much discussion and debate, and in consultation with the Virgin Islands Department of Health, the University of the Virgin Islands Board of Trustees voted on Saturday, June 19, to institute mandatory vaccinations for all students and employees,” according to a release from the University. In the release, UVI President David Hall said, “This decision was made based on what the board felt was in the best interest of the entire UVI community. COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on this nation and the world. This virus can be fatal, and we have seen those consequences.”
The UVI policy allows for religious and medical exemptions, which can be requested, while students from the Eastern Caribbean, who may not have immediate access to the vaccine, can receive their first shot upon arrival in the territory and commit to regular testing until fully vaccinated. The staff has until Aug. 1 to comply with the mandate, followed by students on Aug. 9 and faculty on Aug. 11. If not vaccinated, students will not be able to attend class in person but can participate in courses offered online.
Friday night’s forum was a student-driven event in which participants explored the idea of “choice” versus the right of the university to institute a mandate meant to keep its students, faculty and staff safe from exposure to the virus. Across the nation, it was stated, more than 400 other colleges and universities have adopted similar policies based on data offered by the Centers for Disease Control and other medical databanks about the prevalence of COVID-19 in unvaccinated communities. Looking locally, some participants also mentioned the ongoing surge of the virus in the British Virgin Islands, where more than 1,000 residents and counting have been impacted.
“Educating yourself about COVID-19 is the best step toward prevention and limiting exposure,” said UVI sophomore Nadege Barber, who led the meeting with a digital presentation on facts and myths surrounding both the virus and the vaccine, as offered by the CDC, along with data on COVID-19 rates from the territory and surrounding areas.
Nationwide, people of color have had concerns about the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness. According to a recent Johns Hopkins study, institutional racism and historical inequities in health have played a role in vaccine hesitancy among brown and Black communities in particular. This has put the onus on health care organizations, elected officials, community and religious leaders – and, in this case, student groups – to dispel misinformation.
Members of an ad hoc student group, Reverse the Mandate, said that the university has been able to maintain a low COVID infection and exposure rate as protocols across both campuses have been put in place since more about the virus has become known, including masking and social distancing. Students said one solution is continuing to strictly enforce those protocols, which they said does not usurp a person’s right to choose whether or not to receive the vaccine.
During the forum, UVI senior Kendrekus Jackson said that a mandate, however, does impact an individual’s choice, violating constitutional rights to privacy, among other things. Further, students said that with no long-term data on the efficacy of the vaccine or full approval by the Food and Drug Administration, there is no guarantee that students and staff won’t be adversely affected, and if something does happen, the university will not assume liability.
While Jackson has been propelled to the forefront of the Reverse the Mandate cause, peers Majestik Estrada-Petersen and Quianah T. Joyce have said that he’s not alone in his concerns. According to the results of an internal survey sent out after the announcement, 58 percent of UVI students indicated they were not planning to be vaccinated in the fall. And, for those whose tuition or financial aid have already been processed, concerns were expressed Friday about not being able to attend school, or having to choose from a limited pool of online classes, should someone choose not to become vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Dr. Sharon Honore, UVI associate professor of communication and a faculty advisor, said there are just as many students in favor of the vaccine, or who have been vaccinated but don’t feel comfortable speaking out.
While additional forums were discussed Friday, along with a potential meeting with the UVI board to hear all views on the matter, other students, such as doctoral candidate DaraMonifah Cooper, said afterward that the issue offers an opportunity for additional brainstorming, where stakeholders from all sides can come together and focus on a “solution that will continue to keep us all safe.”