As Colorado Colleges Consider COVID Vaccine Mandate, Fort Lewis Goes All In

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Fort Lewis College in Durango, Feb. 26, 2021.

Durango's Fort Lewis College on Friday became one of the first schools in the nation to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for returning students this fall. Other Colorado schools continue to weigh the idea.

Mandating vaccines in universities isn’t a foreign concept in Colorado. New college students have to provide proof of immunity to measles, mumps and rubella diseases. On top of those, students living in on-campus dorms have to get additional vaccines.

But, because the COVID-19 vaccines available to the public are only approved through the Food And Drug Administration’s Emergency Use Authorization list, Colorado’s higher education authority is hesitant on issuing a statewide student mandate.

“We serve at the pleasure of the governor,” said Colorado Department of Higher Education executive director Angie Paccione. “So if the governor decides that, yes, everybody gets a vaccine, then we would execute on his vision. However, from all that I've heard and what we've talked about, we don't see that as being a mandate. It's just really strongly encouraged.”

Pfizer vaccines are newly available to all Coloradans ages 16 and older. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are only approved for those 18 and older. She stressed that returning to regular in-person classes and activities would depend on getting a vast majority of students and staff vaccinated. 

Paccione also added that individual universities are free to implement vaccine requirements for their own students.

Several colleges, like the University of Colorado Boulder, University of Northern Colorado, and the 13 colleges in the Colorado Community College System, told CPR News there are no plans to require the COVID-19 vaccine. However, they still plan to encourage faculty, staff and students to obtain it when possible. 

Fort Lewis College in Durango, which has just over 3,500 students enrolled, announced to staff and students Friday that it will require students to get vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall. It’s the first, and currently only, Colorado university to initiate a vaccine mandate. 

“A broadly vaccinated student body provides the best hope for returning to the things that we love about Fort Lewis College,” president Tom Stritikus said. “We've tried to make it as normal as possible, but it has come with a cost. And that cost really is student connection and students really being able to make the kind of connections they can in a normal way.”

College leadership consulted students, faculty, staff and the Board of Trustees before making the decision. Stritikus also spoke to an assistant attorney general to gauge the legality of a mandate. Like other vaccines required on college campuses, students can apply for exemption for religious or medical reasons.

The public university will track student vaccinations through its health pass system, which has been used to track daily symptoms and approve class attendance. Stritikus described the mandate as a step toward relaxing health protocols on campus. 

“So our sincerest hope is by moving this in this direction, we'll be able to relax many of the physical distancing protocols that we have in place right now,” he said. “It's reasonable to expect that if we can get students vaccinated, when people have built up their immunities, that we could be in a situation where there's no masks in classrooms, where we're able to watch basketball games in-person again.”

Sophie Schwartz, Fort Lewis’ student vice president, was one of the students Stritikus consulted when making the decision. She praised the requirement and said students, who missed out on many opportunities during the pandemic, will be excited to inch closer to normal. 

“It was difficult to even meet with peers, to work on coursework and to have intellectually stimulating dialogue. It was just harder to maintain friendships because of mandates about gathering and different public health regulations,” she said.

Fort Lewis is one of the first in the country to require vaccines for its student population. In late March, Rutgers University in New Jersey became what is believed to be the first college in the nation to require students to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine just announced an effort to distribute enough Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses to college campuses to get all students protected against the virus before summer, but will not require it.

This story has been updated to correct the identity of the person Fort Lewis consulted at the Colorado Attorney General's Office.