Campus return may mean a pain in the arm, or two

Vaccine may be required for full return to CUNY, SUNY this fall


It was only a year ago greater New York City was the American epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, as we near the midpoint of 2021, restrictions are winding down and life seems to be slowly returning to normal.

That’s due in large part to the arrival of the coronavirus vaccine, which has set much of the country on the fast lane to recovery. As of May 16, nearly 50 percent of New York residents received at least one dose of the vaccine, while more than 40 percent have completed their vaccine series.

Getting vaccinated might not be the be-all, end-all of the state’s recovery. But it might become a key component of the upcoming academic year for the state’s colleges — at least some of them.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last week students attending CUNY and SUNY institutions would require full vaccination against the coronavirus if they want to physically attend classes on campus. And while he has no jurisdiction over the state’s private colleges, he encouraged them to follow the same guidance.

To Cuomo, getting vaccinated isn’t really a big ask — especially when anyone older than 12 are now all eligible to get the shot.

“We remain aggressive in our efforts, because the reality is we are seeing a decline in the vaccination rate not only here in our state, but nationwide,” Cuomo told reporters recently. “There is no factual argument against the vaccine, and there is no excuse not to get your shot. This vaccine is the weapon that will help us win the war on COVID, and so I urge everyone who still needs to take it to do so quickly at one of our many sites across the state.”

It might not be a big ask for Cuomo, but there is a big “if.” None of the coronavirus vaccines currently distributed in the United States have been fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They’ve all received emergency approval due to the pressing and deadly nature of COVID-19, but in order for Cuomo’s mandate to go into effect, the vaccines would need to receive routine FDA approval as well.

The only school closer to home affected by Cuomo’s directive is Lehman College. And while the vaccine mandate isn’t a sure thing yet, the school isn’t taking any chances, planning as if final FDA approval for the vaccine could come tomorrow.

But the college might be one step ahead: It’s already home to a city vaccination site on campus. And Rene Rotolo, the college’s vice president of administration and finance, thinks Lehman is doing what it can to vaccinate students as easy and painless as a quick poke in the arm with a needle or two.

“The city has worked with the City University of New York and with us to have some of our staff set aside as authorized schedulers,” Rotolo said. “Our people, incoming students (and) our students have an ability to schedule their appointment directly through the college, as opposed to going through the city system.”

Vaccine hesitancy might be a threat to welcoming students back to campus — whether at Lehman or elsewhere. And while some might get up in arms about government institutions potentially mandating the use of the coronavirus vaccine, Rotolo noted vaccine requirements are nothing new when it comes to schools.

“We already have a process in place for verifying vaccination,” Rotolo said. “And this will just be one additional vaccine that’s added to that process. Any student who’s registered must submit their vaccination records, or, if they don’t have them, must get them and then submit the records.”

Manhattan College, however, isn’t bound by the state’s potential vaccine mandate. And while the college is aiming for a full reopening in the fall — complete with its full offerings of on-campus living and learning — its administration hasn’t yet determined if students will need proof of vaccination before returning to campus.

But the college certainly encourages vaccination, especially as it hosted a one-day vaccine clinic last month, with yet another one this week. And it’s collecting data to see if a vaccine requirement is the way forward for the college. 

College spokesman Pete McHugh confirmed a survey of students, faculty and staff members about their vaccination status is well under way, including questions about their willingness to get vaccinated if they aren’t already.

The most recent data currently shows more than 75 percent of student respondents and more than 80 percent of faculty, administrator and other personnel, are fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated, or intend to get vaccinated as soon as possible. 

That data, along with recommendations from the governor and city and state health officials, McHugh said, will all factor into the college’s final decision about whether it will require those on campus to be fully vaccinated.

“As it has been and will continue to be, the health and safety of our on-campus community and our neighboring community is the top priority,” he said.

Rotolo wouldn’t say if she believed Cuomo’s call for mandatory vaccination among CUNY and SUNY students was the right one. But she does think the more people who are vaccinated on campus, the smoother the return to in-person classes will be.

“CUNY is looking to a return to campus for the fall,” Rotolo said. “So thorough vaccination will help put everybody at ease — being vaccinated and stopping the spread of the virus.”

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New York City, Andrew Cuomo, Lehman College, Rene Rotolo, CUNY, SUNY, Manhattan College, Pete McHugh, Rose Brennan