The Kern Community College District's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students and employees went into full effect Monday.
The Bakersfield College COVID Response Team has been keeping busy. Just since Monday, the team has received more than 500 requests from students for a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate, according to Dean of Students Nicky Damania.
"Students like to wait until the last minute," he said.
Damania pointed out that the KCCD board had approved a resolution for a vaccine mandate Aug. 12, giving faculty, staff and students plenty of notice to prepare.
Little about the college experience changed for Bakersfield College students like Leeah Olvera, who got vaccinated the moment she was eligible in the spring.
But in class, Olvera noticed changes. Her English class that used to have about 30 students now has five. One of her lecture classes with 85 students was missing 25 students this week.
"It's quieter," she said.
Nick Strobel, professor of physical science, said the majority of faculty were vaccinated by September. In his own face-to-face classes, all the students were vaccinated, he said.
Damiana said if there were big dips in some classes, it's tough to tell if it was because of the mandate or the college's withdrawal deadline the previous Friday. He said the student population of Bakersfield College is always in flux.
Since spring, everyone on campus has been required to use a Campus Pass App, a contact tracing tool that also asks everyone on campus to check for daily COVID symptoms. On Monday, the app also required vaccination information — or an approved medical or religious exemption.
When uploaded, the app flashes green. Otherwise it flashes red, barring entry into classrooms, offices and other indoor spaces on campus.
On Oct. 4, the college added Campus Pass monitors for some entry points, with state funding earmarked for COVID-19 initiatives, to begin checking the Campus Pass App. Those with red passes are sent to the Office of Student Life for further assistance, according to district spokeswoman Marlene Heise.
Damania said Bakersfield College has been working to make sure students' educations weren't disrupted well ahead of Monday's deadline.
It has asked faculty members to include the mandate on their syllabus. The college has held vaccination clinics everywhere, including football games. Student government has conducted outreach.
On Sept. 13, Damiana's team began emailing, texting and calling students who hadn't uploaded proof that they were vaccinated or received their first shot. The team made another big push Oct. 4 to reach out to students. This allowed students who wanted to switch to remote classes the opportunity to take advantage of late-start classes, Damiana said.
Megan Snyder received a religious exemption. In lieu of being vaccinated, she must get tested twice a week and upload her results into the Campus Pass app.
"It honestly feels like a relief," she said. "I was stressing. I heard everyone had a hard time."
She described the process of applying for the exemption as "tedious." Her first attempt was rejected, but another effort with more research and quotes from scripture was successful. She said the process of testing on campus has been easy, and it's been worth it. All of her classes are face-to-face this semester.
Damania said that the three-person panel reviewing students' applications comes from different backgrounds and has different perspectives on vaccines. They look for substantial evidence of sincere religious belief.
One student turned in a 250-page dissertation. That's not necessary, Damiana said, but the panel does look for students who have put serious thought into their responses in their own words — no plagiarism.
So far the panel has denied 173 applications for religious exemptions. It has also denied 16 medical exemptions. A denial doesn't shut the door for a student, he said — as Snyder's case demonstrates.
But some students have become frustrated with the process, especially when they ran up against another deadline: the last day to withdraw from classes on Oct. 29.
Ethan Compton, 18, said he struggled with an application process that was conducted entirely online. He works four days a week and goes to school four days a week. He wished he could talk to someone in person after he received repeated denials.
"It’s hard to communicate over email," he said.
When it looked like he wasn't going to receive an exemption, he began asking professors if he could switch to a remote format ahead of the withdraw date, so that he wouldn't receive a failing grade. He had to withdraw from one, an intensive 5-credit course in statistics, because his professor said doing work remotely wasn't possible.
"We’re on the ninth week right now," he said. "It's demoralizing — all that time and money spent."
He's considering switching next semester to Taft College, where there is no vaccine mandate.
His dad, Dewey Compton, a video production instructor at West High School, considered ending his role as dual enrollment instructor with Bakersfield College over the issue. He decided to stay on for the session that lasts through May but he vows it will be his last. He believes the mandate is a form of discrimination, and said the college should take natural immunity into account.
Damania encouraged students who need help to reach out to the Office of Student Life. He said the goal of the COVID-19 vaccine requirement has been to make the educational environment safe but it's his office's goal to make sure that all students are engaged and on their educational pathway.
He said he's heard a lot of complaints about the mandate, but he's also had students who are grateful and who feel safer. He said it's not just about the people on campus, but the people they go home to. That's what drove Olvera to get vaccinated in the first place.
"For me, there are kids at home, so we wanted to get it for them," Olvera said. "We didn't want to put them at risk."
Jessica Rojo said she felt like the vaccine requirement was no different than the vaccines she had received in junior high or high school. Among the students she knows, most were vaccinated a long time ago or they didn't get it at all.
"I feel like it was harder for people who let social media get the best of them," she said.