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Board votes against requiring COVID-19 vaccine for in-person classes, after considering racial, economic barriers

PMG FILE PHOTO - Portland Community College's Willow Creek Center in Hillsboro. The community college will not require its students to be vaccinated before winter the winter 2022 term, following a vote by the college board of directors.Oregon's largest community college system won't require its students and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus for the winter term.

The Portland Community College Board of Directors voted 5-2 Thursday, Sept. 23 not to incorporate a vaccine mandate. Directors Michael Sonnleitner and Dan Saltzman were the opposing votes.

PCC initially announced it would not require students to be vaccinated, following an executive decision without board input. The board took up the issue in August, but decided to push any vote off until the college knew more about how a mandate might impact PCC students. The college has routinely held COVID-19 vaccine clinics at its campuses over the past few months and plans to expand clinics to more campuses.

The college is gearing up for its fall term and plans to only allow students back on campus for "essential" courses that require in-person instruction.

PCC President Mark Mitsui said a poll sent to roughly 51,000 PCC students indicated a mandate would result in a less than 2% increase in vaccination rates among students, with many indicating they'd be less likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine if a mandate were in place. Mitsui also warned that a mandate would disproportionately impact students of color, potentially excluding them from in-person classes at a higher rate.

Sonnleitner and Saltzman pushed for more "scientific" data and questioned the validity of the poll results.

"A yes vote on this is not a denial of access to anyone," Sonnleitner said. "I am concerned about the safety of our faculty, the safety of our students."

Mitsui also noted PCC is anxiously waiting to see whether Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issues a statewide mandate for college students to be vaccinated, and said any mandate would be a significant administrative and logistical lift for PCC staff.

SCREENSHOT - Portland Community College board members discuss whether to implement a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for students during a Sept. 23 virtual meeting.Director Serin Bussell, who oversees Zone 4 in Columbia County and parts of downtown Portland, cautioned against a "one size fits all" approach to a desired outcome.

"I believe in science. I believe in the science and efficacy of vaccines," Bussell said, reading from a prepared statement. "I believe that we should take care of each other, and for the love of our neighbors, get a vaccine, but when we have students facing housing instability, and food insecurity, the last thing I want to do is cause more harm by taking away their access to education and the opportunity to be informed by knowledgeable faculty and staff, rather than the blunt force of a one size fits all approach."

While all directors said they want to see more students get vaccinated, the board's lengthy discussion on whether to mandate they do so, underscored a key issue facing institutions and employers across the country.

At one point, Saltzman said the college needed to temporarily suspend its focus on equity, to focus on safety.

"We as a PCC institution should feel fully comfortable moving forward on a vaccine mandate, even if it does interfere with equity goals temporarily, and I don't believe it will," Saltzman said, to sour responses from other board members. "I believe COVID affects everybody equally. We're all dying from a virus that's trying to kill us, regardless of race. Let's take the lenses off so we can focus on that."

Tiffani Penson, who represents portions of Columbia County and northeast Portland, said Sonnleitner and Saltzman previously highlighted death rates among people of color, while ignoring the root reasons those same communities might be hesitant to get a vaccine.

"If we're going to have this conversation, let's really have it and quit putting it on the backs of Black and brown people when it's convenient," Penson said. "It was noted early on that Black and brown people were at high risk of COVID … Yet, we weren't given access to the vaccinations. Now that it's become this huge thing, the weight is being put on us again, like it's us that is impacting the vaccination rates and us alone. Well, it's not… there is rural poor white America that has the lowest vaccination rates."

Penson noted historical exclusion from and mistreatment within healthcare systems has created a lack of trust among non-white communities.

"We are all for vaccinations. That is really not the question," Penson said. "The question is how do we get there and the question is the why? When you ask people … the first thing they default to, were 'Black and indigenous and people of color, they're dying a higher rate.' That's not really what the world cares about. If they really cared about it, we wouldn't be continually mistreated in the healthcare system to begin with. Our high rates of death just don't start with COVID."

Board Chair Mohamed Alyajouri, who works as a clinic manager for OHSU, was the fifth "no" vote.

"As it relates to this context, our PCC community, the students that we serve, I think vaccines save lives, not vaccine mandates," Alyajouri said.

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