Key questions remain unanswered as spring reopening nears

Signs advising visitors that masks are required adorn the entrance to the OCC Bookstore. 

Spring registration is underway at Orange Coast College, but as students, faculty and staff prepare to return to campus, many questions remain unanswered as to what can be expected. 

When the Coast Community College District (CCCD) Board of Trustees passed the COVID-19 vaccine mandate in August requiring students to be vaccinated when they return to campus in the spring semester, CCCD Chancellor John Weispfenning ordered information regarding the policies and execution of the mandate be disseminated no later than Oct. 1.  

“The protocol was shared with all students in October. This included dates for submitting vaccination proof or requesting an exemption. Additionally included was the date when the testing protocol would begin,” District Director of Marketing and Public Affairs Erik Fallis said in an email to Coast Report.

The protocol was announced Oct. 18 at a CCCD Student Council meeting and correspondence from Weispfenning was sent to students’ emails on Oct. 20. 

“This communication occurred following review by the District Consultation Council, which includes student representation,” Fallis said. “Coast District leadership felt it was important to follow the participatory governance process prior to emailing all students.”

Further details such as how students will submit their exemptions, when they begin their testing remain and how this will look in the classroom setting remain untold. As it stands currently, students will have to apply for an exemption or be fully vaccinated by Jan. 24. 

One particularly controversial aspect of CCCD’s vaccine mandate with testing protocol is the “sincerely held personal belief” exemption, which falls under the religious/sincerely held belief exemption. This exemption, which will be offered in addition to a medical exemption, allows students who don’t believe the vaccine is the right choice for themselves to instead opt into weekly COVID-19 testing. Only the medical exemption will require proof. 

“In consultation with District leadership, bargaining units, and participatory governance entities, the wording settled on was ‘religious/sincerely held personal belief,’” Fallis said. “There is no alternative to the protocol. Even if one states they have a ‘religious/sincerely held personal belief,’ that will simply require the vaccination exempt student to enter into weekly testing.”

According to Fallis, CCCD is working with “outside partners” to provide convenient testing services with no direct cost to students.

“This information will be shared prior to the end of this academic term,” Fallis said. 

Despite concerns about the sincerely held belief exemption, district and school administrators have stood in support of giving students the choice between getting vaccinated or undergoing weekly testing. 

“It’s a personal decision,” said OCC Dean of Students Derek Vergara. “Hopefully if we’ve learned anything from COVID-19, we should be more respectful and understanding with one another. Everyone is dealing with the same issues.”

Fallis shared a similar sentiment.

“Individual students will need to make a judgement call of whether that applies to them,” Fallis said, referring to the religious/sincerely held belief exemption. 

Another current topic of debate regards when students will have to begin testing. On Nov. 3, the CCCD Board of Trustees approved an agreement with the Coast Federation of Educators (CFE), the faculty union who represents faculty at all three CCCD schools. According to this agreement, faculty exempt from the vaccination will have to begin testing Jan. 24, a week before the spring semester begins. 

However, according to CFE President Robert Schneiderman, the district has not yet decided when students will begin reporting for testing or how quickly faculty will be informed of students not compliant with the vaccine mandate or testing protocol. 

Schneiderman and Vergara explained that if students are not compliant, they will be given a short time to become compliant before being brought through the academic disciplinary process with repercussions including suspension. Schneiderman’s biggest concern is that if testing for students doesn’t start until the week of Jan. 30 and faculty doesn’t immediately receive a list of non-compliant students on the first day of class, there could potentially be unvaccinated and untested students in classrooms. 

“We expect all students attending on-campus classes to be either fully vaccinated or tested weekly – period,” Schneiderman said in a statement at the Nov. 9 OCC Academic Senate meeting, a governing body composed of faculty representing each division on campus.  “Faculty or staff missing weekly tests are immediately excluded from on-campus activities and expected to retest within two days. This same high standard should apply to students.” 

The CFE is advocating for students to begin testing at the same time as faculty, during the week of Jan. 24. Schneiderman said contrary to popular belief, faculty do want to return to campus, but in a safe manner for both faculty and students.

“We want everyone to be able to participate in a productive and safe classroom environment,” Schneiderman said.

According to other CCCD and OCC administrators, there are ongoing discussions regarding these issues. 

“We are still in conversation,” Vergara said. “As a shared governance structure, we have to gain feedback from each government entity. We have to make sure people’s voices are being heard.”

Vergara added that administrators will be waiting until the student forum is held on Nov. 19 to gain feedback from students, before making these decisions. 

“Many of us are going above and beyond to figure this out,” he said. “The amount of care for students coming through these meetings is phenomenal.”

Neither Schneiderman, Vergara or Fallis were able to offer an exact timeline for when students can expect these decisions to be made or more details to be unveiled, but Fallis did encourage students to regularly check their email for updates. There is also a district webpage providing updates.

“I think we’re doing our best and I can see that in our conversations,” Vergara said. “We should take this opportunity to have discussions about what we’ve learned about student success during this pandemic to help better serve our students in the future.”

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