Santa Rosa Junior College vaccine mandate is in place. Here’s how it came to be

Sonoma County’s single largest school is now covered by a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Here’s how it will affect students, staff and visitors.|

Who is subject to SRJC’s new vaccine mandate?

Those who have to affirm their vaccination status with the junior college by Oct. 15, or else begin submitting to weekly testing on Oct. 19, include:

• Non-faculty employees in positions that have been deemed necessary to be on-site or who are coming on-site for any reason

• Faculty members teaching a class with an in-person component or who are coming on-site for any reason

• Students enrolled in classes with an in-person component or who are coming on-site for any reason

• Members of the college’s Board of Trustees who are coming on-site for any reason

• Volunteers who are coming on-site for any reason

With a unanimous vote Tuesday afternoon by the six members of the Santa Rosa Junior College Board of Trustees, the school officially adopted a vaccine mandate for staff, faculty, trustees and students of Sonoma County’s single largest educational institution.

Individuals in any of those groups who plan to step foot on campus will have until Oct. 15 to verify with the junior college they are vaccinated, or else test weekly for COVID-19 through the rest of the semester. Starting Jan. 1, 2022, the option to test will expire, and anyone working or learning on campus will need to have verified they are vaccinated.

The mandate — similar to those in place for California’s university and state college systems — puts SRJC in line with the majority of California’s 73 community college districts, 46 of which have implemented vaccine mandates on their campuses, a spokesman from the Chancellor’s Office said.

It’s also broadly supported by SRJC’s employees and students, according to labor and student representatives. Though some dissenters voiced their opinions to campus leaders throughout the past month, after President Frank Chong on Aug. 16 announced the school intended to pursue a mandate, most said the dialogue has remained productive and respectful.

“We have a common goal,” said Sean Martin, president of the All Faculty Association. The faculty union has 579 members, but represents a total of about 900 educators at SRJC.

“We want to support the district in creating safety measures that really encourage students to come back, so enrollments in the spring are robust and students are back learning (in person),” he said.

Martin said union members were, in fact, hoping for quicker action to implement the vaccine requirement, especially in light of the start of the semester Aug. 16. All of California’s TK-12 school staff are under a vax-or-test mandate from the state Department of Public Health, with a Sept. 24 deadline in Sonoma County to show proof of vaccination. Both the University of California and California State University systems had already embraced mandates in June and July, respectively.

But California Community Colleges leaders have said they lack the legal authority to impose a similar systemwide mandate.

Chong had hoped for just such a statewide requirement before he eventually pursued the local mandate, including collecting research and feedback on whether to offer a testing option at all, and if so, for how long.

The intent behind the “soft” version of the mandate for the rest of the fall semester, he said, was to give people time to adjust to the new requirement before things get stricter.

“We want to give people the opportunity to (get vaccinated) and understand what the consequences are should they not do it,” Chong said.

His approach to crafting SRJC’s mandate evolved throughout August, though, as the delta variant led to a spike in cases and different groups of people weighed in.

On Aug. 27, for example, Chong announced to faculty and staff that he intended to extend the testing option for students through the spring semester — a step in the opposite direction from what faculty and staff wanted.

“We had no idea that was coming, and it came as a complete surprise,” Martin said. He reached out immediately to Chong to express the union’s shock and dissatisfaction with being left out of the loop.

“If only one student caught COVID here and went home, you have to live with that. … That’s a risk I’m not willing to take.” ― SRJC student body president Delashay Carmona Benson

Chong said he had been in talks with several concerned students in the days prior to his announcement. They had expressed to him their opinion that imposing a strict vaccine mandate would disproportionately bar students of color from accessing in-person classes in the spring, and he was briefly swayed, he said.

“That was a misstep on my part,” Chong said. He walked back the announcement four days later, with a renewed promise to include stakeholder voices before publicly declaring new policies.

Delashay Carmona Benson, president of the SRJC student body, said she also took the time to listen to students’ concerns. She held a listening session in late August to allow her peers to voice their objections or support of the mandate.

“I think the word mandate is the biggie. No one wants to be mandated to do anything,” she said. “We did make a decision against what they wanted because we chose safety for all. (But) it wasn’t about religion and it wasn’t about liberties. If only one student caught COVID here and went home, you have to live with that. … That’s a risk I’m not willing to take.”

Dorothy Battenfeld, president of the SRJC Board of Trustees, said the vast majority of comments she received and that were voiced during the Sept. 14 meeting were in favor of the vaccine mandate.

“I’ve actually been real impressed with the discussion and the thoughtfulness,” she said. “Even though we have different views of how to get there, (there’s) the unity of ‘We’re all here for our students, it’s all about our students.’”

Beyond vaccines, though, union and campus leaders are also looking for continued improvement in other safety protocols, including masking and cleaning.

Martin said faculty who are teaching in-person classes are frequently sharing stories of instances where the protocols are not being enforced.

“There’s a growing sense of concern among faculty as to our confidence in the administration to handle these matters,” he said.

SRJC’s enrollment this fall dropped only slightly from last fall, to 19,216 students, said Pedro Avila, vice president of student services.

Chong said the junior college plans to recruit more monitors, who are supposed to make sure students and staff entering buildings are completing a self-assessment as to whether they are free of potential COVID symptoms, and that they’re masking properly.

Since the start of the fall semester, the SRJC Santa Rosa campus has seen 14 instances of COVID exposure; the Petaluma campus has logged three. But in an encouraging sign of the efficacy of the school’s safety protocols, none of the cases linked to campus is attributed to on-site spread, according to Kate Jolley, vice president of finance and administrative services.

SRJC plans to host more events to educate the campus community about vaccines and offer chances to receive them: The week of Sept. 20 is dubbed “Vaccine Week” and includes events such as the Black Student Union’s Vaccination Jam.

“It’s been challenging, but I think the college is up for it,” Chong said. “I appreciate the passion of those who are antivax, but I urge them to consider the health of others. It’s a public health crisis, so we all have to come together.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Who is subject to SRJC’s new vaccine mandate?

Those who have to affirm their vaccination status with the junior college by Oct. 15, or else begin submitting to weekly testing on Oct. 19, include:

• Non-faculty employees in positions that have been deemed necessary to be on-site or who are coming on-site for any reason

• Faculty members teaching a class with an in-person component or who are coming on-site for any reason

• Students enrolled in classes with an in-person component or who are coming on-site for any reason

• Members of the college’s Board of Trustees who are coming on-site for any reason

• Volunteers who are coming on-site for any reason

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