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Portland Community College won’t require COVID-19 vaccinations

Two top leaders have announced their retirements from Portland Community College.
Bryan M. Vance
Two top leaders have announced their retirements from Portland Community College.

Portland Community College announced this week it will not require COVID-19 vaccinations for students and faculty. Eric Blumenthal is the vice president for finance and administration for Portland Community College and a member of the college’s COVID-19 Opening Leadership Team. He joins us with details on the college’s decision.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Geoff Norcross: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Geoff Norcross. This week, the largest post-secondary education institution in the state of Oregon made a big announcement about Covid-19 vaccines. Portland Community College said it will not require them as a condition of enrollment during the fall term. That decision is the opposite of the one made by Oregon’s public universities. All seven of them will be requiring vaccines, with some exceptions. Here to talk through this decision is Eric Blumenthal. He’s the Vice President for Finance and Administration for PCC. He’s also part of the school’s COVID-19 opening leadership team. Eric Blumenthal, Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Eric Blumenthal: Thanks, Geoff.

Norcross: How did PCC come to this decision?

Blumenthal: I think it was the course of several meetings with the opening leadership team, to really look at our students, and barriers to educational access and really in looking at the best interest of our students and knowing that our students have really different access to vaccination. And for some of our students, a hesitancy to get vaccinated.

Norcross: Are those access issues stronger or more of a hurdle at PCC than, say, one of the public universities?

Blumenthal: I think so. I do think, Geoff, that it is a stronger hurdle for us. We serve such a large population across five counties. That access is sometimes an issue. There’s certainly some hesitancy amongst students. That [is] the problem that you don’t find as much, I think, at a four-year institution.

Norcross: Why is that?

Blumenthal: I think it’s just really the demographics and the accessibility of a community college. I mean, we’re an open mission. Portland Community College is open admission. We’re the most affordable and accessible institution in the state of Oregon for students. So we attract a very different demographic, I think, than a four year institution. We really wanted to be sensitive to our students’ needs and we have high values of equity, inclusion and belonging at PCC. And we really want to uphold those.

Norcross: You surveyed the students and the staff before reaching this decision. What jumps out at you from their responses?

Blumenthal: I think how many are planning, if they haven’t already been fully vaccinated, to get fully vaccinated prior to the fall term? For students, over about 86% said that they would be vaccinated by the time fall enrollment occurred. For our employees, it was over 90%. So I think those were really very telling. So these are quite a bit higher than Governor Brown’s 70% vaccination rate. So those kind of jumped out of the survey. I think another thing that was interesting in the survey, particularly with the students’ survey, was that students don’t necessarily feel like they have to come back to campus. About 70% of our students said that, regardless of what’s offered on campus, they’ll continue their education remotely. So we’re taking that into consideration and working on even more remote instruction now.

Norcross: If students are still hesitant to come back to in-person learning in the fall, you can accommodate them?

Blumenthal: We can. We are certainly going to uphold health and safety. It’s really now a new way of doing business. We’ll be coming back in the fall and really throughout the next academic year for the new normal. Health and safety is going to be paramount in a way it really hasn’t been before. Even though Oregon Health Authority and others may relax some of the rules, we expect that, in the next week or so, we’re still going to be very diligent on our campuses.

Norcross: What safety measures do you think you will have in place in the fall?

Blumenthal: One of the things that we did that I think really sets us apart is we’ve been really serious about health and safety on our campuses. We have monitors. I want to be careful... this is not a police force that’s policing classrooms... but they go around and really make sure social distancing requirements and masking requirements are occurring. Bathrooms are cleaned appropriately. Spaces are cleaned. We have isolation areas in case we do have some Covid outbreaks that occur while students or others will be on campus.I think that sets the support. We’re actually hiring some additional folks to do that for the fall, even as things become a little bit more relaxed with higher vaccination rates. So that will continue.

Norcross: You said that there will be monitors on campus and you were careful to mention that they are not law enforcement. But who are they? How will they identify themselves and what will they do?

Blumenthal: They’re part of our Environmental Health and Safety staff. They’re really overseen by Facilities. The folks that work on Environmental Health and Safety will go around and provide audits. They provide good guidance for folks. We were very careful not to have them directly confront and in the background. We don’t want to upset the learning process, instruction, be intrusive into the classroom, freedom of expression. But really, [they’ll] report back to our managers and our instructors on what’s going well and what’s not going so well. We’ve been doing this now for several months and we’ll continue into the fall.

Norcross: How are these safety measures that you laid out for me different than what’s in place now?

Blumenthal: It’s really a continuation of what is in place now. I think what’s going to happen is there’s going to be more students on campus than we’ve had previously. We’re in different resumption stages. By the fall, we expect to be what we call a more sustained reopening. I don’t think we’re changing the health and safety protocols so much. We’re just preparing for more students, and more faculty and staff being on campus.

Norcross: Are other community colleges around the country making similar decisions?

Blumenthal: They are. Community colleges across the country are concerned about equity, inclusion and accessibility. We keep our eye on that. Obviously we’re going to have to make our own decision locally and [we] have different needs. But really, with the exception of the state of New York, which is requiring all public institutions, including community colleges, to make sure staff and students are vaccinated, very few community college districts across the country are doing so. I know of two in California and one community college in Washington state. That’s really it in the entire United States. So, we’re certainly not an outlier at PCC.

Norcross: What’s different in those two districts?

Blumenthal: I would not know. They are smaller districts, so I don’t know. I know San Diego Community College District has also made that decision. I don’t know their individual thinking within those districts on why they came to that conclusion. I can tell you one difference may be that we are not a residential college at PCC. Central Oregon Community College in Bend [is] requiring that the residential students be fully vaccinated. So, that could be one of the differences in those districts.

Norcross: I’m wondering how this decision will affect how PCC operates in the future?

Blumenthal: We’re going to be more conscious of health and safety than ever before. We are going to have the monitors, as I mentioned, in the fall. Those will continue on. We’ll have much more directional signage than we’ve ever had. We’ll be asking people to wash their hands like we have. As Covid decreases, thankfully for that, we certainly want other communicable diseases like the flu.... there was hardly any flu season this year, and some of it was just enhanced protocols. We’ve heard these messages before and we’ll continue those messages. I think that makes us a healthier, more accessible institution.

Norcross: For students who are coming on to campus, who maybe are not vaccinated but are interested in becoming vaccinated, are you providing any resources for them?

Blumenthal: We are. We have partnered with Multnomah County Public Health and the county itself to offer, at the Cascade Campus, vaccinations. Those will continue throughout August. As other sites are closing down, we’re continuing that site. That site now does not require an appointment and you can just drop in. Then we’re also planning, in Washington County at Willow Creek, a vaccination clinic. We’re going to see if we can continue it. But right now we have one date confirmed. That will be next Wednesday at a Willow Creek Center in the parking lot from 8:00 to 1:00, and they will be offering Johnson & Johnson. So, all one dose vaccinations.

Norcross: Is there any part of campus operationality on PCC’s campuses that you think is changed forever because of the pandemic?

Blumenthal: I think, honestly, all our operations have changed. I think we are thinking of how we clean and sanitize our facilities like never before. I don’t think we ever thought of cleaning and custodial services. But I think now we’re thinking more of sanitizing and disinfecting like we’ve never thought before. So those protocols, of how rooms are cleaned and how our common spaces are maintained, will, I think, be different, and it should be different going forward. So I think we’re permanently changed in that way.

Norcross: I wonder about you and your experience of going through this with PCC. I’m wondering how it’s changed how you view your students and what your obligation to them is in a time of great upheaval?

Blumenthal: I think we have all rethought what we do in the positions of authority and responsibility that we have. I really do think it heightens that. I think we’re much more aware of the physical safety and comfort of our students. That’s one thing we’re concerned about. We certainly want to do everything for our students to achieve. There’s many barriers to education and we really want to be all about access and safety at PCC. I do think it just heightens the connection between the administration and students, certainly of staff and students, and I think it’s going to be a welcoming environment, given so much has been remote this best year or so.

Norcross: So for students who are looking forward to classes at PCC in the fall, what’s your message to them and what do they need to know?

Blumenthal: I think they should come. They need to know we’re looking out for their best interests. We will continue these vaccination clinics. At least the one at Cascade will be there through August, and maybe even later than that. We can help them with the vaccination. We have protocols in place for their safety. So if there are any cases on campus... we certainly don’t know about the variants, and how that will affect things in the fall and going forward. That’s a little bit of a mystery. So we still need to work on that. But we have very close contacts, and students should know this. Public health is always advising us. We work with five county public health agencies. We will work with them and we want to work on contract tracings. Students should know they’re going to be in safe hands if they do come back to campus and we want them to come back to campus.

Norcross: Eric Blumenthal, Thank you so much for the time.

Blumenthal: Thank you, Geoff.

Norcross: Eric Blumenthal is the Vice President for Finance and Administration at Portland Community College. We were talking about the decision by PCC to not require Covid-19 vaccinations of its students and staff when classes start up again in the fall.

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Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Elizabeth Castillo