By Bridget Manley, publisher, and Logan Roddy, senior contributor
Even as it continues to collect vaccination records from students, James Madison University said this week that more than 70% of those enrolled for the fall semester have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
According to Tim Miller, vice president for student affairs, around 2,000 students have yet to provide either a vaccination record or sign the Assumption of Risk form that is required for students who are not vaccinated due to medical, religious or other reasons.
Unvaccinated students who sign the Assumption of Risk form will be required to wear masks at all times and self-isolate – potentially off campus – if they contract COVID-19. These students will also have to submit to weekly testing provided by the university.
“We will do that test on campus, they will be able to pick their date and time when they want to get tested, and we will provide that at no charge to them,” Miller said in an interview with The Citizen. “That will be a self-administered test they will do. They will do it with us in the moment.”
JMU announced in May the requirement that all students provide proof of vaccination or sign the Assumption of Risk form. Early next week, it plans to publish a dashboard that shows exact numbers of vaccinated and unvaccinated students.
Miller said that the university will not identify who is vaccinated or not, and will rely on the honor system for unvaccinated students to wear masks.
“That will be challenging,” Miller said. “We will not release publicly who has not gotten vaccinated, so that is private medical information. My hope is that people who are not vaccinated will make that choice for themselves. If someone reports that they know someone is not vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, then we will address that behavior with the student, because that is part of the Assumption of Risk waiver that they signed.”
To compile COVID-19 vaccination records, the university used the system it already had in place for documenting meningitis and Hepatitis B vaccines – or similar assumption of risk forms for those who claim religious or medical waivers.
Miller confirmed that JMU is allowing students to claim “other reasons” – as in other than medical and religious reasons – for not receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Regardless of their reason for not being vaccinated, all who claim the waiver must sign the Assumption of Risk form before classes.
While about 2,000 students have not proof of vaccination or signed the assumption of risk form, Miller believes another rush of records will arrive at the beginning of the semester.
“Students are not always so responsive when we ask them for things,” he said. “Every year, we are tracking students down all the way until they realize, ‘oh wait, I have to register for class tomorrow and I have a hold on my record, I wonder what that’s for.’ That’s for the record [they] never turned in.”
The penalty for noncompliance will be a fine.
“Students who have not provided a vaccine record will eventually have a fine on their account and they will have a hold placed that will not allow them to add or drop classes,” Miller said. “They will be able to attend classes for the Fall semester but they will not be able to register for the Spring.”
Miller says that while they usually process 5,000 vaccination records for incoming freshmen during July, this year they have over 22,000 vaccination records from the full student population to process this summer.
The university will still be taking the same COVID-19 precautions that they did last year, including reserving quarantine rooms and apartments for possible cases.
University officials are watching the Delta variant, and will consider mask mandates if the virus spreads on campus.
“We are having those conversations, and I think Delta concerns us a lot,” Miller said. “We are having the conversations everyone else is having…. For me, my ultimate goal is having everyone be here in as normal a situation as possible for the entire semester as we planned…If that involves us having to consider masks, I would consider it.”
Graduate students Tiffany Nelson and Brian Biswas, agreed that while the university’s tracking of vaccinations provides a certain level of comfort, they believe it should be doing more.
“I think JMU needs a better system for verifying information because after the absolute mess that was last fall semester with the JMU LiveSafe app, nobody ever checked that,” Nelson said. “Nobody ever asked me if I had checked it off that morning. I did it for like a week and I was like, ‘No one’s gonna bother, I’m not doing this anymore, I’m fine.’ It was not a good system so I’m hoping we come up with something a little bit better.”
Biswas, an international student from India, said that traveling to the United States was a more rigorous process than what JMU is doing. Biswas had to submit a RT-PCR test 48 hours before his flight, and said the Indian Council of Medical Research gives each person a unique code to ensure their test was legitimate.
“For example, in India we have QR codes, it’s like a special code that is assigned to you if you get vaccinated by the government,” Biswas said. “So once you scan that automatically it pops up, like ‘Ok, this guy is vaccinated,’ you can check the person’s name, details, everything against whatever ID they have.”
Both students said the university should rely on more than just the honor system to ensure unvaccinated persons are wearing masks.
“I think the university needs some people, probably the JMU police cadets, I think they should do random checks whether a person is vaccinated or not,” Biswas said. “That sort of helps so that they can carry some kind of documentation for their vaccine. For example I have my documentation, I’m an international student so I had to get my vaccine, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to fly out and it’s also for my own personal peace of mind. So if they check, that sort of puts people under a certain amount of pressure that, ‘Okay, we need to get vaccinated and we need the documentation.’”
Biswas added that not placing holds on student’s accounts for being unvaccinated was absolutely necessary, but he thinks “it should have been put in this semester itself.”
“It would have been a motivating factor for more people to get vaccinated,” Nelson said.
Despite recent uncertainty about the impact of the Delta variant, Nelson said she’s optimistic about the upcoming semester.
“I’m a little more hopeful because so many students have been vaccinated and I like to think of JMU students as a good, intelligent, respectable bunch, and I’m hoping that the administration of this school learned from last year and having people come back in person just to switch it around three weeks later and then flip flop in the Spring,” Nelson said. “It was really terrible. We were very unhappy as students.”
Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We’re also a proud member of the Virginia Press Association. Thanks for your support.