Rantz: After huge outcry, CWU reverses course and grants COVID vaccine exemptions

Sep 28, 2021, 6:16 PM | Updated: Sep 29, 2021, 5:43 am
It took several complaints, the threat of lost revenue, and a media inquiry to get Central Washingt...
It took several complaints, the threat of lost revenue, and a media inquiry to get Central Washington University to reverse course. (Photo courtesy of CWU/Facebook)
(Photo courtesy of CWU/Facebook)

It took several complaints, the threat of lost revenue, and a media inquiry to get Central Washington University (CWU) to reverse course. Students forced into COVID vaccination, in violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs, could now forgo the jabs.

About 3% (or 345) of CWU’s roughly 11,500 students requested a religious exemption. The school initially denied them last Friday night, though it’s unclear if they were all rejected. But that gave the rejected students only four days to ask for a full refund of tuition by a Tuesday deadline. The semester had already begun. Students already moved into their dorms. Many already started their on-campus jobs. And tuition had already been paid.

Students and their parents were outraged. They let the school know they would unenroll. And after some pointed questions by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, CWU reversed course.

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Rejection, then reversal

On Friday evening, Sept. 24, students were informed that CWU had rejected their religious exemptions against the vaccine mandate. It shocked many students since they thought the school implied they would grant an exemption for sincerely held beliefs.

“I sent in my exemption form, and they said it was compliant until Friday, right after I had already paid for my classes,” senior Emily McDougall told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “They said that it was denied. And so I basically have two days … to figure out what I’m going to do.”

To qualify for a full refund on tuition, students must have put in the request by Tuesday, Sept. 28. That gave them little time to decide if they would violate their religious beliefs and accept the vaccination or pull out of CWU.

A stressful decision

McDougall is only 15 credits away from a diploma. But she was ready to pull out of CWU.

What’s worse, she felt the timeline to deny students was intentional: The school was leveraging the fact that they already paid and started classes to coerce them into getting the vaccine against their will.

“It frustrates me. They’re using leverage,” McDougall explained. “For me, specifically in this case, they’re using my time that I have put in up until this point to get all of the credits I’ve got. They’re using the money, financially, that I put in up to this point to get all the credits I got, … and the degree over my head as leverage for me to get this, and I just don’t feel comfortable with that.”

She complained about the process but said she was willing to unenroll. She wasn’t alone.

Parents speak up

Several parents reached out to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH to express their anger at CWU.

“The timing of the denial is highly suspect in that they appear to be expecting coercion and peer pressure to entice the remaining students to get vaccinated due to convenience or falling in line so they don’t have to share with their new friends that they are unvaccinated if they choose to keep their medical information to themselves,” one mother emailed me.

They, too, were under the impression that the religious exemption request was a sure thing.

CWU President James Wohlpart announced the exemption policies on Aug. 4. The wording seemed hopeful to those seeking an exemption:

In the event a student is seeking an exemption to the vaccination requirement, allowed for medical, religious, and/or philosophical reasons, an exemption form must be completed and submitted through CWU’s protocols. The form requires verification from your current health care provider for medical waiver requests. For those students who have an approved exemption on file, they may be subject to different campus protocols if an outbreak occurs.

Students and parents were wrong to feel that language meant a guarantee.

Student and parent pressure won the battle

By Monday afternoon, the day before the deadline for students to ask for a refund, scores of students and parents complained about the process. And they made it clear they would not give in.

Wohlpart was feeling the pressure.

That morning, the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH asked specific questions about the timeline of the denials. Why were they denied after school began? Was the timing an intentional strategy to pressure students to get vaccinated? And why were students who were previously granted religious exemptions for non-COVID vaccines suddenly denied?

“It’s been an eventful 48 hours! As you know, when we issued denials of religious exemptions a few days ago, we immediately heard from parents and students,” Wohlpart’s chief of staff Linda Schactler told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH via email.

Schactler says CWU heard “compelling arguments for reconsideration.” They then consulted with the Washington Attorney General’s office.

“[CWU] began revisiting state requirements for assessing what the governor’s higher education COVID rules call ‘sincerely held religious beliefs,’ to see if we could have more latitude in our evaluations,” Schactler says.

Reversals came in hours before the refund deadline

The results? A total reversal.

By late Monday afternoon, Schactler indicated they were reconsidering their next steps. She said the school did not want the students to unenroll. But at the time, they were still thinking of extending the deadline for either vaccination or receiving a refund. They didn’t have a specific plan but wanted to do something to address the concerns.

In the end, CWU offered the students the exemptions.

“We started re-reviewing requests last night and this morning were able to notify the vast majority of students that their exemptions were approved. We also are working with the Registrar to make sure no students lose their place in a class,” Schactler confirmed.

MacDougall received her reversal letter just after 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

The letter explains that she will need to wear a face covering while on campus and maintain social distancing as best as she can.

This was avoidable and very instructive

CWU created a mess and they are to blame for it.

While CWU addressed the problem, they caused undue stress on students and their families. Administrators should have seen the timeline they forced on students as unfair and unethical. It feels intentional — that administrators intended to leverage the start of the semester and a cashed tuition check to get students to agree to vaccination.

Thankfully, CWU students stuck to their guns, setting off what seemed like a panic within the administration. Could they stand to lose that many students at once? The answer turned out to be no, and Wohlpart did the right thing.

These students won by saying no to significant overreach that mandated a medical decision that should otherwise be private and optional. That is instructive.

Thousands of state employees and school and hospital staff face the same vaccine mandate from Gov. Inslee’s proclamation. Will the state truly fire thousands of workers who are seeking vaccine accommodation? If 3% of CWU students could win this fight, perhaps the same would be true under Inslee.

Did you like this opinion piece? Then listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3–6 pm on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz  on  Twitter,  Instagram, and Parler, and like me on Facebook

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Rantz: After huge outcry, CWU reverses course and grants COVID vaccine exemptions