What suburban colleges are doing to motivate students to get vaccines

Most suburban community colleges are recommending, but not requiring, vaccines for students and staff

McHenry County residents in Phases 1b and 1b+ wait to be vaccinated at a pop-up clinic held in the gymnasium at McHenry County College Friday, Friday, March 26, 2021.

College of Lake County will give $100 checks to fall semester students with one string attached: proof of vaccination against COVID-19.

The college announced the incentive last Thursday morning to entice, but not require, students to get their shots. By that afternoon, more than 900 had submitted their vaccine documentation.

“I hope that the early response is a good sign of engagement by students,” CLC President Lori Suddick said.

Other schools have offered rewards to attract students to roll up their sleeves for the jab. Harper College in Palatine held a drawing for vaccinated students, giving 10 winners an entire year of free tuition, books and fees, a scholarship valued at about $5,800.

While most Chicago-area community colleges are taking a similar approach and encouraging vaccinations, it’s unclear if students are heeding the call. With the start of classes just a week or so away, many schools aren’t keeping tabs on vaccination rates among students and faculty.

“We’re not requesting that,” said Jeff Julian, Harper’s chief of staff. “Our focus right now has really been on just strongly encouraging students and employees to get the vaccine.”

However, the students and staff at the College of DuPage, the state’s largest community college, must be vaccinated before in-person or hybrid classes begin next spring. The COD mandate won’t take effect until Jan. 1, officials say, so the school has time to set up an automated, confidential system of tracking vaccinations, and students are given a chance to comply.

Concerns over the surge of the delta variant and guidance from the Illinois Community College Board and Illinois Board of Higher Education factored into the decision to order vaccinations, COD President Brian Caputo said.

Both state boards strongly encourage colleges and universities to make vaccinations mandatory to protect campus populations and slow COVID-19 transmission in surrounding communities.

“We’ve got an incentive package that we’re going to roll out to try to encourage or entice students to get vaccinated sooner rather than later,” Caputo said. “But in the end, if we’re going to have a safe campus as reasonably as possible, people need to be vaccinated.”

Nationwide, 730 colleges require vaccines of at least some students or employees, according to a list compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Vaccine access

This summer, community colleges provided vaccinations at on-campus clinics, giving away gift cards and other freebies to those receiving shots.

At Elgin Community College, additional clinics will tie into the “Welcome Weeks” after the fall term starts Aug. 23.

While school officials say they’re “vaccine champions,” they’ve stopped short of a mandate. Waubonsee Community College and McHenry County College also won’t require vaccines.

“All of the community colleges communicate with one another in our decision-making as we move forward in our mitigation efforts on campus, and to have some degree of consistency,” ECC Vice President Peggy Heinrich said.

“Given that we are an open campus, we’ve made that decision to not require vaccination at this time, which is consistent with practice statewide, aside from COD.”

Many community colleges have expanded in-person offerings since the spring. At ECC, about 41% of classes are hybrid or face-to-face, up from 22% in the spring.

Class sizes are still smaller to accommodate six feet of distancing. Students must wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. Free COVID-19 testing is available. And other precautions remain in place.

“Considering where we were over a year ago, when we had to completely shut down, the mere fact that we are open, offering opportunities for classes, I think we’re in a much better position,” said ECC Police Chief David Kintz, who is organizing the school’s vaccination clinics.

At Harper, Northwest Community Healthcare has an on-campus outpatient care center offering free vaccines. College of Lake County will host clinics at its Grayslake campus Aug. 26, Sept. 23, and Oct. 21.

It launched the vaccine incentive program using $1.5 million in federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds.

“Even just setting up this incentive program took a significant amount of resources to get a system in place to be able to collect, track and process the incentives,” said Suddick, CLC’s president. “Establishing a mandate just comes with a lot of complex variables to navigate and manage something like that.”

Private schools

Area private schools are taking a mixed approach. For example, while North Central College in Naperville is not requiring vaccinations, Aurora University has mandated them for students and employees before they return to residence halls and classrooms. Exemptions can be requested for medical, religious or personal reasons.

As of last week, 86% of Aurora’s faculty and staff were vaccinated. The school continues to compile data on student rates. Officials also are following up in phone calls and emails with those who haven’t yet provided COVID-19 vaccination records.

“The university is very focused on identifying the status of each person, not to be intrusive, but so that we can make sure we’re ready to take the right precautions,” President Rebecca Sherrick said.

The school will calibrate testing requirements and other preparations to vaccination rates. The university also has reserved a “significant area” in a local hotel for quarantine and isolation, Sherrick said.

“We plan to be pretty aggressive all year long in making sure everybody is safe,” she said. “We’re not going to leave anything to chance.”