The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.
Religious protections for San Mateo County Community College District students who are subject to a vaccine mandate will remain in place after district officials sided with arguments that stripping the exemption from students but not faculty would be unfair and discriminatory.
“It’s been a high priority of the board to try to create an accessible and inclusive campus that is welcoming to as many people as possible. Here’s an example where I think we should respect that goal,” Trustee John Pimentel said during last Wednesday’s Board of Trustees meeting.
The board adopted a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in late July for full-time faculty, part-time staff who work on campuses or district facilities or who do in-person work on behalf of the district and students who attend in-person classes, programming or utilize services.
Under the original policy, faculty and students could request religious or medical exemptions and would be required to wear masks whenever indoors regardless of local mandates and to submit to routine testing. But on Wednesday, district staff requested that the board consider a series of policy amendments, one being the removal of religious exemptions for students.
Such protections are required through the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health for teachers, meaning students and faculty would be treated differently under the policy change. Chancellor Michael Claire did not offer an explanation for why the religious exemption could be removed for students aside from saying district staff was looking to clean up the policy after information changed since its adoption.
He also reiterated that the district was not recommending the change and was only presenting it to the board for consideration.
Pimentel noted that very few students and faculty have requested the exemption including 17 faculty members across the district, 23 students from the College of San Mateo, 30 from Skyline College and 17 from Cañada College.
Trustee Maurice Goodman came out the hardest against the policy change, echoing sentiments shared by the public that individual religious beliefs should be respected with the same intent as when students and faculty stood up against Asian hate and other forms of discrimination.
“For me, if it’s really about safety then we would have someone at the gates saying ‘hey, where’s your [proof of] vaccine,’” Goodman said. “It’s not just about health. It’s not about checking a box — that it’s really about acknowledging the humanity and the presence and the lived cultural experiences of all of our students.”
Speaking toward a letter submitted by Skyline College’s governing student body, the Associated Students of Skyline College, which came out against the exemption, Goodman said he was embarrassed as an alumnus of the institution and a former student body president.
Presidents of the other two colleges said their student governing boards had not taken a position on the issue. Student Trustee Ashley Garcia advocated for keeping the protections in place after speaking with members of the student body.
Goodman also lambasted faculty and their representative groups for not standing with students who were lobbying for the protection to remain, noting that students have routinely rallied in support of educators and staff issues.
“My question is, where is that courage? That’s the courage we need to be expressing here today,” Goodman said. “So I say to the board, let’s have the courage like we have in the past.”
While in agreement that staff and students should be treated the same, Trustees Lisa Petrides and Richard Holober still emphasized the importance of balancing religious beliefs with public safety. They both advocated for having stronger language included in the policy outlining the types of safety measures to which unvaccinated students and faculty would be subject.
Holober also pushed back on public comments comparing the vaccine mandates to the Nazi era human experimentation.
“I’m personally very offended,” Holober said. “No one is being coerced.”
Petrides noted that no established religion has formally come out against the vaccines on the market. Responding to public concerns for taking a medication that uses aborted fetal cells during research, Petrides said she’d also like to see a requirement that people attest to not consuming other medications on the market with similar research practices like Tylenol, Claritin, Zoloft and Motrin.
With a 5-0 vote, the board ultimately sided with calls to include religious exemption of vaccines for students while also emphasizing that unvaccinated students and faculty will likely be subject to other safety measures.
“This world has decided that COVID is real and it is something that is transmissible. It’s something that we live with and, for the time being, it’s a given and we have to accept it as that,” board President Tom Nuris said. “We have to make sure that we have protocols and procedures in place to make sure it’s safe for everybody.”