Three Kansas universities adopt vaccination mandates for all employees to comply with federal edict

Kansas public universities caught in federal order, state budget crossfire

By: - October 22, 2021 1:45 pm
Blake Flanders, president of the Kansas Board of Regents, said public research universities in Kansas must figure out how to adhere to a COVID-19 mandate issued by the federal government while following a state law targeting budgets of universities that adopt such mandates. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

Blake Flanders, president of the Kansas Board of Regents, said public research universities in Kansas must figure out how to adhere to a COVID-19 mandate issued by the federal government while following a state law targeting budgets of universities that adopt such mandates. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The president of the Kansas Board of Regents offered recommendations Friday to state universities receiving federal funding that must comply with a U.S. government mandate on COVID-19 vaccination of government contractors, including grant recipients, and adhere to a Kansas law withholding state funding from universities imposing inoculation directives.

Blake Flanders, who serves as president of the board responsible for public universities, community colleges and technical colleges, said each institution should consider implementing a process to comply with federal directives covering COVID-19 vaccines for contractor employees. In addition, the federal order would require masking and physical distancing in contractor workplaces, including visitors and students, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Officials at the University of Kansas, Kansas State University and Wichita State University, which receive millions of dollars annually in federal financial support, responded by adopting vaccination mandates covering all employees. All three universities pledged to consider request for medical or religious exemptions.

President Joe Biden issued the executive order in September requiring all covered employees to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19. He adopted a limited exemption if an employee was legally entitled to an accommodation. For existing contracts, covered contractor employees must be fully vaccinated no later than Dec. 8.

The state Board of Regents, which is appointed by the governor, hasn’t established a formal policy. The board isn’t scheduled to meet again until November.

“These were guidelines from me to the universities,” Flanders said in an interview. “The universities are seeking ways they can still meet the requirements of state law and continue with these federal contracts.”

Flanders said the state universities in Kansas should draw from money outside the state budget to comply with the federal directive. That’s because Senate Bill 159, approved by the Kansas Legislature in May, prohibits state agencies from using money appropriated by the state to “require an  individual to use a COVID-19 vaccination passport within this state for any purpose.”

Doug Girod, chancellor at the University of Kansas, said that KU would direct all employees to submit proof of a full vaccination for COVID-19 by Dec. 8.

“Because of the scope of the federal order, this mandate applies to all KU employees – including student employees – on all campuses and in all KU affiliates and auxiliaries, unless an employee applies for and receives a religious or medical exemption,” Girod said. “Employees who do not comply with the vaccine requirement are subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination from employment.”

He said federal contracts that funded research, employment and educational efforts were at risk if KU didn’t align with Biden’s executive order. He recommended unvaccinated employees seek their first vaccine dose immediately, because the process could take up to six weeks.

“For this reason,” the chancellor said, “we cannot be flexible with employees who choose not to comply with the vaccine requirement.”

Wichita State president Rick Muma said the university’s vaccination policy would apply to all employees, including part-time and full-time personnel as well as student employees. The vaccination obligation extends to employees working remotely if tied to a covered federal contract, he said.

“Compliance with the vaccine requirement is a condition of employment,” Muma said. “Employees who are not fully vaccinated or do not receive approval for a medical or religious exemption will be prohibited from engaging in work after December 8. Further failure to comply will be addressed consistent with university policies and procedures, which may include corrective action up to and including separation.”

He said the COVID-19 order from the federal government also would require as of Monday the wearing of masks and physical distancing in WSU indoor and outdoor spaces, classrooms, laboratories and social events regardless of a person’s vaccination status.

Kansas State, likewise, issued an order requiring faculty, staff, and the graduate and undergraduate student employees to be vaccinated for the coronavirus by Dec. 8. The vaccine requirement doesn’t apply to students who don’t work for the university.

K-State has more than 275 federal contracts and cooperative agreements, affecting almost every aspect of the university. The vaccine requirement does not apply to students who are not university employees.

“The COVID-19 vaccination is a condition of employment,” KSU officials said. “E mployees who are not fully vaccinated or do not receive approval for a medical or religious exemption may be prohibited from engaging in work.”

The six state universities in Kansas have hundreds of contracts with federal agencies, such as NASA, the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Energy, Department of Education and the National Science Foundation. There are subcontracts with large private companies that act as federa  contractors. These contracts and subcontracts provide hundreds of millions of dollars to Kansas higher education and to the state of Kansas.

The Biden mandate must be incorporated into contracts awarded prior to Oct. 15 whenever a contract option or extension occurs. Through Nov. 14, federal agencies were to voluntarily include the COVID-19 clause into new contracts. Contracts established after Nov. 14 must feature the vaccination and other pandemic-related directives.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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