All Hancock College students and staff must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 1 to enter campus buildings and attend in-person classes after the Board of Trustees unanimously approved a vaccination mandate Aug. 10.
The decision came days before the start of the 2021-22 school year on Monday, eliciting frustration from some faculty and students. Beginning in October, all students, faculty and staff will be required to provide valid documentation of full COVID-19 vaccination to access the campus as well as off-campus services.
The college will accept approved exemptions based on medical or religious concerns, according to college spokeswoman Lauren Milbourne.
Information about the board's decision and the mandate was relayed to students on Aug. 11, said college Superintendent and President Dr. Kevin Walthers, adding that the mandate seemed like the best way to ensure the campuses could stay open as COVID-19 cases surge again.
"What we were hearing from students was that they want to come back to campus. We started hearing from other members of the community, and the board said, 'maybe we should consider this,'" Walthers said. "For the fourth semester in a row now, we’re in uncharted territory, but our faculty and staff are resilient. I feel and share their anxiety, but our mission to serve students in this community … is so critical."
All classes will be offered in person at Hancock this fall. Some courses also give students the option to participate in live classes virtually in an emergency remote teaching model or complete classes on their own schedule through a distance learning format, according to Hancock's website.
However, it is still not immediately clear to faculty when and how they can offer the alternate models, along with several other logistics related to the fall semester, according to Hancock history professor and Full-time Faculty Association President Roger Hall.
While understanding the board's desire to keep the campus community safe, he wishes the board had continued to allow faculty to choose whether to teach classes in person, a choice that was taken away in June.
"It’s work that is still in progress, and I don't know exactly what's gonna happen, except that Monday we’re gonna be mostly going into the classroom," Hall said. "We’re not quite sure what the reaction of the student will be. Will it hurt enrollment? Will you see people dropping out? Will it bring more people in? There’s really more questions than answers."
The college has yet to share how it will enforce the vaccine mandate, particularly for staff. Walthers said students who decline to get the vaccine by the October deadline will be able to access online options.
Since the beginning of the month, Hancock has been offering vaccination incentives for students in the form of a $250 debit card, which Walthers said he hopes has increased student vaccination rates.
Students must be registered for the fall semester and be able to present identification along with a physical or digital version of their COVID-19 vaccination card to receive payments, which will be available for pickup Aug. 23 in Building A on the Santa Maria campus.
The college also held a series of vaccine clinics last week, with plans to provide further vaccination opportunities on campus.
As of Aug. 2, an indoor mask mandate is also in place at Hancock, requiring masks of all persons on campus in indoor areas regardless of vaccination status.
Hancock joins the wave of other colleges and universities that have announced vaccine mandates over recent months, including Santa Barbara Community College and all California State University locations.
Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, however, has not mandated vaccines at this time.