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Penn State Students, Faculty Rally For COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate

Outside Old Main Friday, dozens of Penn State students, faculty, and community members gathered to once again urge the university to implement COVID-19 vaccine requirements this fall.

The rally, led by the Coalition for a Just University at Penn State, largely featured short speeches and testimonials from attendees. The common theme: Penn State needs a vaccine mandate.

Mechanical engineering professor Zoubeida Ounaies, a cancer survivor, said COVID-19 needs to be taken seriously, and vaccine requirements are the most logical option for Penn State.

“I know how to read data…I take my role and my teaching seriously,” she said. “I want to be in my classroom teaching in person. I want to be in my lab. The way to do this is for everyone to be vaccinated. Mandating vaccines is not an issue of overreach. This is about protecting our community.”

Anthropology professor Kirk French has long been a proponent of vaccine requirements. Earlier this summer, he launched an incentivization campaign in an attempt to one-up the university’s own.

Friday, though, French said vaccine requirements are needed to keep in-person learning as safe as possible.

“Penn State has a history of excelling, at teaching, research, athletics. How can we excel if our classrooms aren’t safe? We can’t,” he said. “When you sit in my classroom you have 18 people within 6 feet of you for 75 minutes. It isn’t safe.”

French even extended an invitation to Penn State President Eric Barron and other administrators, encouraging him to visit a packed class to “leave with a better understanding of human behavior.”

State College locals also joined the demonstration. Borough Council President Jesse Barlow, who also teaches at Penn State, pledged support for a potential mandate and said the council “supports the good judgment of students.”

Earlier in August, the Borough Council issued a statement urging Penn State to create a COVID-19 vaccine requirement before its fall semester began.

Early on in the demonstration, a small scuffle broke out between a counter-protestor and a few attendees. According to the Centre Daily Times‘ Halie Kines, he left with what appeared to be a bloody nose.

Police escorted the counter-protestor away from the demonstration. Others, who weren’t involved in the physical altercation, held signs toward the back of the crowd.

This is far from the first time faculty held a pro-vaccine demonstration, and it likely won’t be the last. One earlier in August was focused more specifically on faculty, while today’s incorporated students, too.

To date, Penn State has shied away from full-on COVID-19 vaccine requirements, opting to only incentivize and encourage them. Full FDA approval of Pfizer’s vaccine won’t change that, according to a university spokesperson.

Although COVID-19 vaccines aren’t required, those who haven’t submitted proof of vaccination to the university do need to jump through a few extra hoops. Most notably, they’re required to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing this fall. Punishments for noncompliance include conduct referrals, suspensions, and bans from campus events, including football games.

Earlier this month, President Eric Barron implied political pressure from Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislatures served as a roadblock to requiring vaccines. In an open letter, he noted that approving the university’s state-funded appropriation “requires a two-thirds vote of the Pennsylvania legislature.”

Nine of 14 Big Ten schools, including Ohio State on Monday, have announced requirements for COVID-19 vaccinations in one way or another. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, nearly 800 universities nationwide have vaccine mandates in place.

Penn State faculty have outspokenly voiced concerns about Penn State’s lack of a vaccine requirement so far. About 270 professors from 16 campuses, organized by the Coalition for a Just University, taught online in protest earlier this week.

In its latest estimate, Penn State said about 82% of students living on campus are fully vaccinated. Additionally, according to the university, administrators and “academic personnel” are respectively 94% and 82% vaccinated. Full-time staff sit at about 72% vaccinated.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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