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Fort Lewis College will require students to be vaccinated for coronavirus to enroll for the next academic year

Leaders at the southwest Colorado college say vaccination is the best hope for restoring in-person learning.

The Reed Library and Student Union buildings on the Fort Lewis College campus in Durango, Colorado, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By Sarah Flower, KSUT Public Radio

Fort Lewis College in Durango on Friday said it will require its students to be vaccinated to enroll in fall of 2021. The college, a public institution, is the first of higher learning in Colorado — and one of the first in the nation — to make such a requirement.

The college, which has about 3,500 students, said in a campuswide announcement “a broadly vaccinated student body provides our best hope for returning to the hands-on, inclusive, and personalized learning environment that we all know and love.” 

Fort Lewis has followed COVID-19 mitigation protocols for the past year to protect both the campus community and broader southwest Colorado community. Requiring the vaccine, the college said, is “another critical pillar in our public health strategy that will help end this pandemic.” 

In an interview with KSUT, Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus said the mandate is the best way to keep the community safe. He acknowledged that it would make some people uncomfortable.

“We felt this was the best way to keep our community safe, we felt this was the best way to keep our faculty and staff doing its best work,” he said. “And when I talked to our student government leaders around this decision, they said what breaks my heart is that a first-year student coming to Fort Lewis College may not have the same experience that I had as first-year student. 

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“So we get people might be uncomfortable, we get that there might be some concern, but what we shared in our mitigation process was that we were willing to make sacrifices for the greater good,” he added. “And I think this is the perfect time to do it for our students and our community.”

That includes protecting a particularly diverse student body. More than 40% of Fort Lewis College students are enrolled members of Native American and Indigenous communities. Many have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19.

Stritikus credited the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes with making sure their enrolled members were vaccinated quickly. Both tribes then opened up vaccine eligibility to the general public. That made the vaccine mandate even easier to justify, according to Stritikus.

“The idea of the vaccine and the availability of the vaccine has been socialized in our community,” he said. “Maybe a bit more than others.”

The COVID vaccine isn’t the only one to be required at Fort Lewis College. Colorado law mandates that all students be vaccinated for MMR (Measles, Mumps, and Rubella) before attending class.

Similar to that mandate, some students will be able to opt out of the coronavirus vaccine based on religious, medical, or other ADA exemptions.

Rutgers University in New Jersey last month became what is believed to be the first college in the U.S. requiring students to get vaccinated against COVID-19. In Ohio, an initiative is underway to distribute enough Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses to college campuses to get all students protected against the virus before summer, but will not require it.

CPR contributed to this report.

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