Employees at the University of Kansas, Kansas State University and Wichita State University must all be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 8.
The three universities announced the mandates Friday, a day after the Board of Regents (KBOR) told state colleges that new vaccine requirements issued by President Joe Biden would apply to schools with federal contracts.
University employees can apply for religious and medical exemptions. But failure to comply, the colleges said, would result in discipline and possible firings.
The requirements will not apply to students unless they work for the university. All campus visitors will be required to wear masks in accordance with federal guidance.
The University of Missouri system is “still reviewing the federal vaccine mandate to determine how it affects us,” spokesman Christian Basi said. The system’s Board of Curators in September passed resolutions prohibiting any COVID-19 vaccine requirements for most students, faculty and staff, though that does not affect mandates currently in place for MU Health Care employees.
The mandate is almost certain to frustrate Kansas Republicans, who have condemned Biden’s vaccination push as an overreach of power. In May, the Legislature passed a proviso to the 2022 budget barring state-funded institutions, like universities, from requiring vaccine passports.
The universities delayed requiring vaccines for students and staff through the beginning of the school year because such requirements could risk their state-level funding.
It’s unclear exactly how the federal guidelines will impact the state-level ban. But in the memo to colleges, KBOR president Blake Flanders said universities had “no choice” but to comply with the federal order.
Kansas’ six regents institutions, the memo said, have “hundreds” of contracts with various federal agencies as well as subcontracts with other government contractors.
“These contracts and subcontracts provide hundreds of millions of dollars to the institutions and to the State of Kansas,” Flanders wrote. “Failure to adhere to the [Executive Order] and September 24 Guidance would jeopardize this critical funding and the research component of the institution’s mission.”
Flanders urged universities not to use state funds to comply with the guidance in an effort not to violate the state budget proviso against vaccine passports.
In a message to students and staff, KU Chancellor Douglas Girod said the university would work with KBOR to “address discrepancies between state law and the federal order.”
Speaking to reporters Friday morning, Kansas U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall criticized the CDC for pushing the mandates without giving leeway to those with some natural immunity from being infected with COVID-19.
“I think they’re feeling undue pressure from the CDC,” Marshall said. “If the CDC is giving bad guardrails that aren’t necessarily backed with science, if they’re driven by political agendas it’s frustrating and this is what happens … it kind of forces local entities to overreact.”
Abigail Fern, a spokeswoman for Pittsburg State University, said the college was working to understand the guidance and would have more details next week. Emporia State, a spokeswoman said, would not require vaccines because they do not administer federal grants.
Some University of Kansas Students and Faculty said Friday they were grateful to see the vaccine requirements.
More than 1,000 people signed a petition that circulated over the summer calling for a vaccine directive or more stringent COVID-19 protections on campus.
University Senate President Hossein Saiedian said the issue remained a point of concern for staff and faculty well into the fall semester.
At meeting after meeting, Saiedian said, staff and faculty members said they were concerned for their safety and wanted vaccines to be required.
“This is a very welcome decision,” he said.
Ani Kokobodo, president elect of the University Senate, said she’s was excited to hear the news. Kokobodo teaches a large lecture class and goes home to an unvaccinated child.
“It’s really hard to control this invisible threat that is being spread through the air,” she said. “In terms of level of anxiety about the safety of all of our spaces I think this is really important.”
While there is likely to be pushback from some university employees and student workers who do not want to be vaccinated Hollie Hall, who represents graduate students in KU Student Senate, said her sense was that most would welcome it.
Hall said she would like to see the university require students be vaccinated but acknowledged that would be difficult under the current legal framework.
“I think it will be great for people on campus to have to be there to have to work in person to be safe in knowing that the people around them are vaccinated,” Hall said.
The Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition, the union that represents many graduate student workers, declined to comment Friday.
The Wichita Eagle’s Denise Neil and Kansas City Star’s Jeanne Kuang contributed to this story.