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Back to School in 2021 Means Grappling With Pandemic Policies

Back to School in 2021 Means Grappling With Pandemic Policies
Photo by Mira Kireeva on Unsplash.

While developing policies for operating in the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, Christian leaders of day schools and universities have grappled with their constituents’ opposing views.

Entering the third school year to be affected by disruptions of the pandemic, people’s diverse responses to how to deal with the infectious disease are surfacing in these Christian institutions.

Policies, Petitions

On Aug. 11, Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich., announced that unvaccinated students would pay for weekly COVID testing and for quarantine expenses this school year. In response, over 1,200 people signed a petition on demanding that the school back down on the policy, calling it discriminatory against the unvaccinated. About 80 percent of both Calvin students and staff are vaccinated against COVID-19. All students are required to submit a form declaring their vaccination status and acknowledge obligations related to it.

Third-year Calvin student Stephanie Robinson wrote and submitted the petition. Calvin president Michael LeRoy responded to her on Aug. 18, declining to alter the policies. However, the university did soften the wording of the required form, removing a reference to potential judicial action, according to Robinson.  

“I’m speaking on behalf of unvaccinated students, also on behalf of people who are afraid to speak up right now because it might cost them (job opportunities or friendships).” Robinson said.  “I’d be lying if I’d say it hasn’t cost me personally to speak up about my beliefs. … But it’s worth a fight because it’s something that I so strongly believe in.”

Disagreement with Calvin’s COVID policies has led some students to transfer to other universities this fall, said Sarah Visser, the school’s vice president for Student Life. Some left because they deemed the policies too strict, while others felt vaccinations should be mandated. Meanwhile, others transferred into Calvin because they favored its policies over those of other schools.

“The past 18 months have highlighted the importance of leading with both conviction and humility in this season,” Visser said. 

 “It’s disheartening to see students and professors at a Christian university openly speak out against public health protocols intended to protect students, professors, and their loved ones,” said Harm Venhuizen, editor of Calvin’s student newspaper.

Communication, Caution

At Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa, vaccination against COVID-19 is “highly encouraged,” though not required. Sarah Moss, Dordt’s director of marketing and communication, said the school was aiming for a “center path,” respecting “peoples’ individual choices while simultaneously being as cautious as possible for the most at-risk among us.” Before coming to campus, students had to provide documentation of either a negative COVID test, a positive antibody test, a positive past COVID test, or of vaccination against COVID-19. Moss said, “The data we asked our students to provide gives us insight into where we stand with herd immunity, and it assists us in having the most COVID-19-free start that we can obtain while aiming for the center path.” She said ongoing testing for students is not required. Unvaccinated students will have to help pay for “accommodation costs incurred due to quarantining” while COVID quarantine services will be free for vaccinated students, according to a COVID-19 communication from the school. The same communication says, “We are anticipating that we will be mask-free this academic year, while still supporting those who choose to wear a mask.” 

Dordt’s student COVID vaccination rate is 46 percent, and its faculty/staff rate is 80 percent.

According to Nik Vander Kooy, director of marketing at The King’s University, in Edmonton, Alta., few have objected to the policies at the small Christian university, though a few professors would like them to be stricter. The school recently issued an indoor mask mandate, but does not require proof of vaccination against COVID-19. A voluntary survey conducted by the school in late August found COVID vaccination rates of 85% for students and 97% for faculty and staff. The university will offer a COVID vaccine clinic this fall.

Regional Differences

Some institutions have few options in crafting their policies. Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Ill., and Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ont., each are following government directives to request proof of vaccination against COVID-19, require weekly testing for those who are unvaccinated, and require people to wear masks while indoors. Both schools will provide rapid antigen tests free of charge. Redeemer and Trinity declined to share their COVID vaccination rates.

Many elementary and high schools also are restricted by government actions. In an Aug. 23 letter to public and private kindergarten-to-12th-grade school leaders in California, the director of Public Health wrote, “Failure to follow the mandatory public health directive (requiring universal masking) will expose schools and school leaders personally to substantial legal and financial risks.” As of early September, at least 13 states specifically require private schools to mandate mask wearing: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington. In Canada, Ontario and Quebec are requiring masks for students in grades one to 12, and British Columbia requires them for grades four to 12.

In Prinsburg, Minn., Central Minnesota Christian School’s COVID policy describes that school’s approach—no masks or vaccinations required—as fitting its context. “Our rural context is different from the Twin-Cities metro and more densely populated places,” it says. “We believe that having students in a face-to-face community learning environment is the most effective for most students,” wrote superintendent Jon De Groot. The school does require students to be symptom-free for 48 hours before returning to school after illness.

In Michigan, Kent County and Ottawa County health departments issued a joint order on Aug. 20 that all students in kindergarten through sixth grade must wear a mask at school. At a pursuant Kent County meeting, which had to be moved to a larger venue, over 1,000 people gathered and 132 people spoke in response to the order, mostly against it, local media reported

Grand Rapids Christian Schools, which educates over 2,200 students, is complying with the Kent County order, and masks are optional for students above sixth grade, except on buses. The school system urged parents to share their students’ COVID vaccination status to assist in its decision-making, promising to keep student health information private.

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