Some colleges and universities in northern Illinois plan to strongly encourage, not mandate, vaccines against COVID-19

‘The college has other practices in place that can mitigate exposure – including masking and distancing guidelines, health screening at all entrances, and thorough daily cleaning protocols,’ a McHenry County College official says

Upon reopening in the fall, some colleges and universities in northern Illinois will strongly encourage, not mandate, vaccines against COVID-19.

Some officials said a decision to get inoculated should be a personal choice while others said they haven’t yet made a decision.

At the same time, area colleges and universities are looking to do their part to ensure a safe return to classes in the fall.

In McHenry County, McHenry County College decided not to mandate vaccines of students and staff, said Christina Haggerty, the college’s vice president of marketing, communications and development.

“The college has other practices in place that can mitigate exposure – including masking and distancing guidelines, health screening at all entrances, and thorough daily cleaning protocols,” Haggerty said. “We also continue to work with the county and other local partners to provide more and more opportunities for our employees and students to be vaccinated.”

McHenry County College has worked hard to form its reopening plan in response to the ongoing pandemic, officials said.

“Since the onset of the pandemic, we have taken numerous, additional steps to create safe spaces in all of our buildings on campus, including appropriate physical distancing measures in both classrooms and meeting rooms, plexiglass partitions for front-line staff and additional air filters/purifiers in smaller office spaces,” Haggerty said.

Other colleges across northern Illinois that said they do not plan to require the vaccine include Northern Illinois University, Sauk Valley Community College, Elmhurst University, College of DuPage and Joliet Junior College.

Joliet Junior College president Judy Mitchell explained the rationale behind the college’s decision, saying that “our philosophy has been to be a source of information for our campus community, so they can make their own educated decisions regarding their personal health.”

Joliet Junior College has taken steps to accomplish this aim over the past year by co-hosting a public informational panel about the vaccine with U.S. Rep. Bill Foster and other science and health care experts; partnering with KodoCare pharmacy to provide multiple vaccination clinics on the main campus; and launching COVID-19 testing on campus for employees and students.

“We believe that offering these opportunities have led to an engaged and informed campus,” Mitchell said.

Sindt said the university’s communication and outreach to the university’s students have been well-received.

“They’ve been really engaged ­– from very emails to social media to digital signage around campus,” he said. “It’s really engaging and creative trying to keep their interest. We do a weekly YouTube show – the president and I – where we give updates. Our student leaders have been really active in asking questions of their fellow students and trying to get as much feedback as possible.”

In Kane County, Waubonsee Community College and Aurora University have differing rationales behind the decision not to mandate the vaccine.

“At this point, we’re following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Illinois Community College Board guidelines,” said Amanda Geist, executive director of marketing and communications for Waubonsee Community College.

Waubonsee Community College has been providing five ways of delivering instruction to students since the pandemic started. Options vary from fully face-to-face to a hybrid model to completely online. In doing so, officials said the college has found success with keeping students and staff safe.

Geist said diversifying the delivery of instruction was always part of the college’s plans.

“The pandemic increased the need, and we recognize the need,” she said.

Aurora University – along with Lewis University in Oak Brook – has not yet made a final decision about mandating the vaccine in the fall.

“Right now, we’ll be strongly encouraging students to get vaccinated,” said Deb Maue, Aurora University’s vice president for marketing and communications. “Right now, the vaccine is on emergency authorization through the FDA. Until such time as the FDA fully approves the vaccine, we will be strongly encouraging students to get the vaccine rather than requiring it.”

The university won’t finalize its reopening plans until July.

Lewis University Provost Christopher Sindt also said his institution has not yet made a decision about mandating vaccines against COVID-19.

“We’re doing a very serious education campaign right now, and we’re providing vaccinations on campus in concert with the Will County Health Department,” Sindt said. “We’ve been guided by authorities throughout the whole process – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Illinois Department of Public Health. … The American College Health Association is one of those authoritative groups we turn to for guidance. We did notice they got around to requiring vaccinations. We haven’t made a decision about that, but we are paying very close attention.”

Maue said Aurora University’s current thinking is that it needs to remain flexible enough to respond to the health landscape.

Maue refuted the concern that remote learning didn’t mesh with students over the past year, but said they like having the option to choose how instruction will be delivered in the fall.

Neither college has reverted to fully remote learning since reopening their facilities amid the pandemic.

That’s not the case for Northern Illinois University in DeKalb County.

Matt Streb, chief of staff to the university’s president, said the university had a two-week pause at the beginning of the fall semester.

“Over the course of past year, 80% of our courses were either fully online or in some hybrid format,” Streb said.

In the fall, the university is looking to reopen more of its campus to students.

Streb said the university views its efforts to inform students about the importance of vaccines as important.

“We wanted to have a very aggressive education campaign,” he said. “While we’re not mandating the vaccine, we – as an institution – want our students, faculty and staff to take the vaccine. We wanted to make sure they were educated. There were understandable questions about the vaccine, so we’ve done some education and events on campus with experts.”

A vaccine will also not be required of Sauk Valley Community College students and staff, said Eric Epps, the college’s information and security dean, but the college will be taking various measures to keep students and staff safe as it reopens more of the campus to students in the fall.

“We’ve considered it, but we don’t have the intent of requiring vaccination,” Epps said. “We’ve certainly been encouraging it. We’re not requiring it.”

The college’s efforts will vary from requiring saliva testing to increased sanitization and cleaning of buildings.

In DuPage County, Elmhurst University and the College of DuPage also are preparing to welcome students back to campus in the fall.

“The plan in the fall is to be as much in-person as possible,” said Phil Riordan, vice president for student affairs at Elmhurst University.

Riordan said the university is keeping tabs on where the state is in terms of its reopening plan.

College of DuPage President Brian Caputo said the college aims to open up more opportunities for in-person learning in the fall.

“We’re going to have to see how the positivity rates are looking, how well the vaccine is taking hold, and all of the things you look at to make sure you’re not taking on undue risk,” Caputo said.

Caputo said the college wants to mitigate the risk as much as possible to keep people safe.

“The primary driver of what we’ve been doing has been the safety of our students, faculty and staff trying to keep them as safe as possible under the circumstances,” he said.