One university’s quest to boost vaccination rates—and its ‘reasons of conscience’ exemption

With its own Dec. 13 deadline approaching and Biden's Dec. 8 mandate for some employees, the race is on.
By: | November 1, 2021
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The University of Akron is among of group of higher education institutions that announced a vaccine mandate for its faculty, staff and students just after the fall semester began. That meant the pushback of the date of compliance to Dec. 13, one day after the close of final exams and before the community goes on its winter break.

Since then, the university has pushed vaccinations and other strategies to help drive rates higher. However, hesitancy over pursuing that mandate in mid-October (as state politicians in Ohio were fighting it) led to some setbacks. Back on track now, only 60% of its student population and 70% of its employees are fully vaccinated. While it has touted the “good success” of those rates, those percentages lag behind many other colleges and universities in other states. The Ohio State University lists its vaccination rate at 91% (though it includes both first doses and completed schedules in its data).

There are two asterisks to Akron’s story. One is that there is still a little more than a month before its populations can submit their vaccine information. Ohio State’s deadline was in mid-October, so Akron may see a lot of last-minute entries. And two, like Ohio State, Akron allows for more than just religious and medical exemptions. It has a “reasons of conscience” exemption that is akin to a personal choice release that means approved students and employees don’t have to be vaccinated.

“It is the individual choice of each student to determine when to get vaccinated,” Alexander Knisely, Marketing and Communications Specialist at Akron, told University Business. “We understand that between now and Dec. 13, students and employees may already be in the process of applying for an exemption or planning when and where to get their vaccine.”

Last week, in an effort to streamline the process, Akron said it would waive its original mandate that all exemptions be notarized. Students and faculty still must include a “short statement outlining the reasons of religious belief or reasons of conscience for requesting the exemption,” and those who request a medical exemption must have “a completed medical exemption form and supporting documentation from a licensed health care provider.”

Knisely said a committee looks at all requests from students, while its Human Resources team reviews faculty, staff and contracted position submissions. Even if the exemption requests are turned down, Akron offers individuals the chance to try the process again. So, there are a lot of potential outs to meet that 100% target and vaccine numbers don’t have to go higher in a state split on them, although Akron officials would like to see more get those doses.

One group that is a concern for Akron and most universities are federally contracted employees, who must have proof of vaccines under the Biden Administration mandate by Dec. 8. With a 30% shortfall on compliance from faculty and staff, Akron said it is in the process of identifying those that might be in that category.

Boosting their numbers

The University of Akron’s 65% full vaccination rate for its entire community is actually better than the state of Ohio percentages that shows 18-and-overs at 62.4% and the 20-29 population at 44%. But it has had more than 20 positive cases of COVID-19 on its campus every week of the fall semester on a campus that has about 13,941 undergraduates. Positivity rates are currently at 1.27% from a sample of 430 surveillance tests, not off-the-charts high but not as strong as others.

So getting the word out on the effectiveness of vaccines while implementing campus-wide initiatives has been a mission for Akron over the past few months:

  • It held several free vaccine clinics, including walk-ins for students and faculty, which they promoted heavily through social media and communications. Incentives were part of the draw, including Gov. Mike Dewine’s Vax-a-Million promotion.
  • It has provided a mobile vaccination unit through the Summit County Health Department’s Weekly Wednesday Clinic and Summa Health System
  • And it has utilized a mini-grant from the American College Health Association to purchase promotional materials to get the word out to students through a Wellness Ambassadors Program.

As it tries to boost vaccine numbers, Akron is continuing its indoor mask mandate. It is also making clear to students that if they get vaccinated they won’t have to submit to potential twice-a-week testing after the deadline.