In one sweeping letter to its community, Rhodes College in Memphis addressed COVID-19 vaccination mandates, huge fees for those who don’t get them, a full return to campus, a flu shot requirement and gender-neutral restrooms.
The most prominent of the decisions, and potentially the most polarizing in Tennessee, was Rhodes announcing it will require COVID-19 vaccines for students, staff, faculty and any campus guests once full approval of either the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson shots are granted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Rhodes officials expect that will come this summer. Currently, Vanderbilt University and Maryville College are the only institutions in the state to require COVID vaccines.
For Rhodes students who decide not to get preventive doses – whether the FDA decision comes before the semester begins or not – they will pay for it.
“Upon returning to campus, non-vaccinated students will be charged a $1,500 per semester Health & Safety fee to cover the costs of mandatory testing,” Meghan Harte Weyant, Vice President for Student Life, wrote in a letter to the Rhodes Community.
Those tests not only will need to be conducted before unvaccinated students arrive on campus, they must have weekly tests during the semester, including their initial arrival on campus. Those students are also being asked to wear masks as part of the school’s honor code. Rhodes officials said there also may be restrictions placed on unvaccinated individuals during “certain campus events and activities, including athletics, clubs and intramurals and student organizations.”
In addition to that mandate, the small private liberal arts college that has a little more than 2,000 students is also requiring that its populations receive a flu vaccine this year to further protect its community.
“While our campus commitment to masking and distancing guided our success in the spring, it will be out campus commitment to campus-wide vaccinations that help us achieve a successful fall semester,” Weyant said.
The charging of fees for testing is unique, though colleges and universities across the country have incurred huge expenses over the implementation of widespread programs, some conducting multiple tests per week on students. As COVID-19 positivity rates continue to fall and colleges press to fully reopen, robust testing may be costly.
Rhodes is offering the opportunity for students to file for medical and religious exemptions. International students who do not have access to vaccines will be accommodated by the college when they return in the fall. They must, however, email their intentions to be vaccinated or they too will incur the $1,500 fee per semester.
Also notable in the “Beyond COVID-19” section of the return to campus letter was Rhodes stating it would offer gender-neutral restrooms starting in the fall for those individuals who identify as gender-neutral or from the LGBTQ+ and transgender community. That was done in response to a bill signed by Gov. Bill Lee, the first in the United States, that called for public businesses to post signage that identified bathrooms and locker rooms as gender-neutral if transgender members use them.