After President Biden issued an executive order in September requiring federal contractors and employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19 by December 8 — later extended to January 4 — dozens of colleges ordered their employees to get vaccinated or seek an exemption. But now some are reneging on their mandates, just as a new variant of the virus is causing concern.
The University of Tennessee system, which announced on October 21 that Covid-19 vaccinations would be required for certain employees, will no longer require vaccinations or masks on campus after a federal district judge in Kentucky granted the states of Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee a preliminary injunction that prohibits the federal government from enforcing the federal-contractor order in those states. In October, Tennessee legislators passed a law abolishing all vaccination mandates, but allowed entities at risk of losing federal funding if they didn’t comply with the federal vaccination mandate to apply for exemptions from the state comptroller’s office. Sixty-nine applicants — including the University of Tennessee system — were granted exemptions, which have all now been suspended in the wake of the court ruling, the Tennessean reported on Wednesday.
This isn’t the first time Tennessee has flip-flopped on requirements — and confused its campus communities. Two weeks ago, Randy Boyd, the university system’s president, sent an email to employees telling them the mask mandate had been lifted systemwide in compliance with a state law prohibiting mask and vaccination mandates. But then Donde Plowman, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s chancellor, emailed students and the faculty saying a mask requirement would be reinstated on November 22 in order to comply with Biden’s order, which also requires buildings in which federal contractors work to follow the CDC’s mask guidance. Now none of the campuses in the system are requiring masks or vaccinations.
Meanwhile, in Kansas, two universities have faced pushback from the state for their vaccination policies. Attorney General Derek Schmidt accused Kansas State University and the University of Kansas of violating a state law that makes it easier for employees to get religious exemptions from coronavirus vaccination requirements.
The institutions’ forms for employees seeking vaccination waivers ask them to describe their religious beliefs, and request third-party documentation to show their beliefs are sincere. Under the new law, employees just have to sign a written statement verifying their religious beliefs in order to get a waiver.
A spokesperson at the University of Kansas told The Chronicle it had updated its forms to comply with the new state law. On Thursday, Kansas State University also updated its coronavirus vaccination guidance to be in line with the law.
The challenges to vaccination mandates in Kansas and Tennessee come as Biden announces new measures to prevent the spread of a new virus variant, called Omicron. Though not much is known about the variant, it is raising concerns about a potential surge in cases over the winter.