Area colleges take up the ‘Covid Challenge’

To get young people vaccinated, the White House and the U.S. Department of Education have asked colleges and universities across the country to sign up for the Covid-19 College Vaccine Challenge. Many in Connecticut and New York have answered the call.

While a significant number of older Americans have been vaccinated against Covid-19, young people have lagged behind. In an effort to rectify this, the White House and the U.S. Department of Education have asked colleges and universities across the country to sign up for the Covid-19 College Vaccine Challenge. The challenge has three prongs:

  1. Knowledge — Ensure that all students, faculty members and staffers know they are eligible for the vaccine and have the resources to get it;
  2. Organization — Implement a plan to vaccinate the college community;
  3. Delivery — Bring vaccines on-site.

At press time, almost 850 colleges and universities nationwide have taken up the challenge, including 38 in Connecticut and 121 in New York state. Among those in Connecticut are Fairfield University, Housatonic Community College, Norwalk Community College, Sacred Heart University, the University of Bridgeport and the University of Connecticut. Those in New York include Bard College, Dutchess Community College, Mercy College, Pace University, Sarah Lawrence College, Purchase College and Westchester Community College.

For many of these colleges, which have been working with their states and following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, the federal government’s Covid challenge is one that they have already anticipated. 

“It was an easy transition for us to make, because we were well on our way,” says Jennifer Anderson, vice president of marketing and communications at Fairfield University, a Jesuit-run school where nearly 1,500 Pfizer vaccines were distributed in April and May in partnership with Derby’s Griffin Hospital and the university’s own Marion Peckham Egan School of Nursing & Health Studies. 

But while a survey of 80% of the students on campus said that they had received the vaccine or were planning on getting it, that’s easier said than done. “The challenge as we perceive it is to encourage people to get the vaccine,” Anderson adds. “We started to promote why they should get the vaccine through contests and messaging.”

The university has held vaccine raffles for gift cards and iPads and even a $1,000 scholarship for first-year students. For its summer population of students, athletes and coaches, it’s been working on vaccinations and proofs of vaccination.

“We’re working with students to understand that not only are you protecting yourself by getting vaccinated, but you’re helping to protect your community,” says Karen Donoghue, Fairfield’s vice president for student life.

Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers hasn’t seen the need for incentives, as “the faculty and staff have been clamoring for the vaccine,” says Danielle Coscia, the college’s vice president of human resources. Last fall, the college registered to be a vaccination site, says Mary Hartnett, R.N., Sarah Lawrence’s director of medical services. In April, its Health &Wellness Center was all set to go with 300 shots of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine when the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) paused it. The college then worked with the Westchester County Department of Health and Westchester Medical Center to get those registered vaccinated off-site, then resumed administering the Johnson & Johnson shot on campus when the pause was lifted.

To date, at least 75% of Sarah Lawrence’s 450-member faculty and staff is fully vaccinated while at Fairfield University, 83% of its 618-member faculty and 71% of its 646 staffers is fully vaccinated.

The real challenge in President Joe Biden’s Covid challenge will occur in the fall as temperatures drop, activities move indoors and variants of the coronavirus continue to heat up. While the virus and remote learning have caused some college enrollments to decline, others are soaring. Anderson says Fairfield University is expecting its largest and academically strongest freshman class to date with more than 1,250 students. Sarah Lawrence has seen applications rise 20 percent with 4,000 students vying for 400 freshman slots. 

Fairfield University, which will be a mix of in-person and remote classes this fall, “will continue weekly testing,” Anderson says, “as we did throughout the ’20/’21 academic year, for those individuals who have not submitted proof of vaccination. Individuals who do not comply with weekly testing will not be permitted access to campus until a negative Covid test is provided.”

At Sarah Lawrence, where intimate class size and a strong faculty adviser-student relationship are at the core of its pedagogical approach, classes will be in-person this fall, with first-year and sophomore students required to live on campus and all students required to be vaccinated. 

“The college will accept medical and religious exemptions, as allowed for all required vaccinations,” Hartnett says. “The college’s medical record system tracks the list of students who have medical or religious exemptions, allowing the college, along with the local Department of Health, to manage any Covid-19 cases, and contact tracing, on campus. The college will offer online classes for students who choose not to vaccinate and are without a medical or religious exemption.”

“We’re still an educational community,” Hartnett adds. “We’re not trying to compromise people’s beliefs. We’re trying to educate people as to the right choices, because sometimes they have ideas that are not based on the science.”

Sarah Lawrence College at a glance

  • In a nutshell: Intimate, coeducational liberal arts college in Yonkers – founded in 1926 by real estate mogul William Van Duzer Lawrence as a women’s college to honor his wife, the former Sarah Bates. Known for its writing, performing arts and human genetics programs; small class sizes; and faculty adviser-student conferences
  • President: Cristle Collins Judd
  • Students: Roughly 1,700 (1,400 undergraduates, 250 to 300 graduate students)
  • Faculty and staff: 450
  • Operating budget: $80 million, with an additional $35 million in aid.
  • Endowment: $136.8 million.
  • Tuition per year: $58,936

Fairfield University at a glance

  • In a nutshell: A modern, Jesuit university – founded in 1942 in the town of Fairfield – that bills itself as “rooted in one of the world’s oldest intellectual and spiritual traditions.” It has five schools – the College of Arts and Sciences, the Charles F. Dolan School of Business, the School of Engineering, The Marion Peckham Egan School of Nursing & Health Studies and the School of Education and Human Development.
  • President: Mark R. Nemec
  • Students: More than 5,000 undergraduates
    and graduate students
  • Faculty and staff: 618 faculty members;
    646 staffers
  • Operating budget: $218 million
  • Endowment: $350.8 million
  • Tuition per year: $52,070

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