Student leaders are asking the Minnesota State system to require COVID-19 vaccinations for those enrolled at its public community colleges and universities as the omicron variant fuels a spike in campus infections.
Members of Students United, an association representing those enrolled at Minnesota State's universities, want the system to require all students to either be fully vaccinated or tested regularly for COVID-19. Minnesota State's 30 community colleges and seven universities currently require vaccination only for students living in college-owned housing, participating in intercollegiate athletics or working internships or clinical jobs.
The system's campuses have collectively reported more than 2,100 new COVID-19 cases in January.
"This omicron surge is the worst that we've seen since the pandemic began," Students United vice chair Arnavee Maltare told Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra and the board of trustees Wednesday. "We need a stronger guidance around enforcement and accountability."
System employees are subject to a vaccination requirement for all state workers. But Minnesota State has so far opted not to adopt a mandate for all students even as most private colleges and the public University of Minnesota system have.
The majority of students in the Minnesota State system have decided to get vaccinated on their own, with 65% having received at least one dose as of Dec. 1, according to state immunization data the system obtained.
Some campuses are more immunized than others, however. Vaccination rates at the individual schools ranged from 43% at Northland Community and Technical College's campuses in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls to 79% at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.
The community college student association LeadMN has not called for a vaccination mandate. But LeadMN President Axel Kylander told Malhotra and board members Wednesday that campuses must do more to increase their vaccination rates.
Some unvaccinated students have been swayed by false information online, Kylander said. He encouraged campuses to hire students as ambassadors to educate their peers about the safety of available COVID-19 vaccines.
"For students swayed by misinformation, clarification from medical professionals does not resonate," Kylander said. "A vaccine-hesitant student will listen to a classmate whereas they would not listen to a doctor."
Malhotra welcomed the student groups' feedback but did not commit to their proposals. In a statement to the Star Tribune, he said the system will continue its approach of encouraging students to get vaccinated.
"Increasing the proportion of students and employees who are vaccinated is a top priority for us," Malhotra said. "The path forward we take now must continue to stress the importance of education around vaccinations, reduce barriers and hesitancy associated with the vaccine, and minimize burdens on students in pursing their academic goals."