UA students and employees react to COVID-19 campus updates

Ainsley Platt, Staff Reporter

UPDATE: This story was corrected to reflect a change to the vaccine mandate deadline. All UA employees must be vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022. 

Beginning Nov. 5, masks are no longer required for vaccinated individuals on campus in most cases. The University also announced a vaccine mandate last week for all faculty, staff and student employees by Jan. 4. 

Mask mandate

Unvaccinated individuals will still be required to wear masks indoors after Nov. 5, but the University is not allowed to check vaccination status. Those who are vaccinated will still be required to wear face coverings on Crimson Ride buses and in clinical settings.

The mask mandate was first introduced last year, but was ended for summer sessions. The mandate returned for fall 2021 and has been extended multiple times since. 

“Anyone, including those who are fully vaccinated, should feel comfortable choosing to wear a mask, even when not required,” a UA News release said.

Alaina Stickler, a junior majoring in management and accounting,  was pleasantly surprised when the mandate was lifted.

“I’m excited about it,” Stickler said. “I think it was past due, and a lot of people in my classes stopped wearing them anyway, so even my teachers were not wearing them. It was tiring to have to remember to carry a mask around.”

Mallory McLauchlin, a sophomore majoring in political science and English, said that she agreed with the University’s decision, and that she and others stopped wearing masks in communal buildings and dining halls before the announcement.

“Those who want to be vaccinated have done so; therefore we should all be secure in our decisions and our safety,” McLauchlin said.

Tristin Lollar, a sophomore majoring in political science and criminal justice, said he found the news liberating. He said the masks made it difficult to connect with people during his freshman year. 

“Cases have continued to go down, and vaccine rates have gone up, so I believe that we can be cautiously optimistic for the future,” Lollar said.

The University currently reports six positive cases of COVID-19 for students and four for faculty members. At least 62% of students are vaccinated against COVID-19, and at least 72% of faculty are. 

Lollar said he has been vaccinated against COVID-19 but believes that unvaccinated people should not be required to wear masks either. 

“If things get worse in the future, we can reassess the situation,” Lollar said.

While many students celebrated the announcement, some faculty members voiced concerns. Rebecca Britt, an associate professor in the College of Communication and Information Sciences, pointed out the difficulty of enforcing a mask mandate that only applies to those who are unvaccinated.

“I don’t approve of the mask mandate being lifted,” Britt said. “UA states that unvaccinated individuals will still be required to wear a mask indoors or during outdoor activities with close contact, but how will they be checking that? It’s not been clear from the University what the guidance is on that. Although I’m vaccinated, I’ll still be wearing a mask, because I’m not confident in the University’s policies, and I feel I need to do my small part in protecting community health.”

Stephen Bunker, a professor of Latin American history, is worried about an outbreak occurring once students return from Thanksgiving. Despite being fully vaccinated, with plans to receive his booster shot in the near future, Bunker is concerned that his plans to travel abroad to visit family and conduct research at the end of the semester could be impacted if he tests positive for COVID-19, which he says is a much larger risk now that the campus is shedding its masks. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that all individuals — regardless of vaccination status — should wear facial coverings indoors if they are in an area of substantial or high COVID-19 transmission, which includes Tuscaloosa County. Alabama’s statewide mask mandate was allowed to expire this past April.

Vaccine mandate 

In compliance with President Joe Biden’s recent executive order requiring vaccination for federal employees, all University and student employees are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4. 

In the announcement on Oct. 22, the Department of Human Resources said “UA does not have flexibility in its application or enforcement” because of its reliance on federal funds. 

Nirmala Erevelles, a professor of social and cultural studies in education, said she approves of the mandate.

“In order for us to reclaim our collective lives and collective work, it is critical that we all attain some safety from this deadly virus,” she said. “If vaccinations can keep us safe and reduce the severity of infection, and since we need it to be a community effort, I support this mandate. We have lost too many lives, and so many others are struggling with long-term effects. This is enough. Let’s support the community and vaccinate.”

As of Nov. 3, more than 748,000 people have died due to COVID-19 in the United States, more than 15,600 have died in Alabama, and more than 600 have died in Tuscaloosa County.

“I’m in full support of the vaccine mandate,” Britt said. “Protecting community health is essential to end the pandemic, and I want our campus community to stay safe and healthy.”

Bunker agreed with the University’s decision to comply with the mandate and criticized those who did not wish to get the vaccine.

“As a Latin Americanist who teaches about the role of conquest in epidemic diseases, I do not understand how people think we are better off without vaccines,” Bunker said.

He was optimistic about the number of students who have embraced vaccination.

According to the most recently reported data, at least 62% of UA students have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“I think it says a lot about UA students,” Bunker said of the vaccination rate.

Student workers on campus, ranging from RAs to the baristas, fall under the mandate as well.

Cyrus Gomes, a freshman majoring in computer science, works at an information desk at the UA Student Center, and said the vaccine mandate can help keep the workplace healthy.

“I really do approve of the mandate,” he said, “I think it’s a safer way to work and actually live in a coherent environment with your co-workers too.”

Protest

A group of individuals and families — the majority of whom were not affiliated with The University of Alabama — protested the University’s vaccine mandate on Oct. 30.

The group gathered at the corner of University Boulevard and Dr. Edward Hillard Drive. Many held signs with messages like “My body, my choice” or waved American flags. Some brought their young children, who also held signs. 

Randy Fuller, a local pastor who is unaffiliated with The University of Alabama, organized the protest. Fuller said he was against the mandate from the very beginning, but declined to elaborate. 

Dr. David Williams, a physician working in the Tuscaloosa area who attended the protest, adamantly opposed the mandate.

“If you don’t have freedom over your own body, what freedom do you have?” he said. “That really should trouble every American.”

Williams said that he, as a doctor, is opposed to vaccines being mandated because all COVID-19 vaccines currently available are “still under experimental use authorizations.”

The COVID-19 vaccine manufactured and developed by Pfizer and BioNTech was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for those over the age of 16 on Aug. 3, 2021. The other two vaccines currently available in the U.S. are the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which are both still under emergency use authorizations. Pftizer’s vaccine still has emergency approval for children ages 5-15.

Another protestor, Mandy Hall, is a nurse at the University. Hall has worked at the University for at least eight and is worried she would be fired over her opposition to the vaccine. 

Hall said her Christian religious beliefs prevent her from receiving the vaccine.

“It’s against my religion to do foreign substances if I don’t choose to, if I feel like it’s a sin,” she said. 

Hall said she applied for a religious exemption and will appeal if it gets denied, but said she has no plans to get the vaccine. 

University and student employees can apply for a medical, disability or religious exemption through the Vaccine Management Portal

Those who are applying for a medical or disability exemption must fill out a Medical Provider Inquiry Form, which is available through the portal. Those requesting a religious exemption must complete a COVID-19 Exemption Request Form, which is also located within the portal. 

UA recommends that all exemption requests be submitted by Nov. 12 to leave time for evaluation and appeals if necessary before the Jan. 4 deadline.

Isabel Hope contributed to the reporting of this story.

Questions? Email the News desk at newsdesk@cw.ua.edu.