LSU

A line including Matthew Perschall, an LSU freshman from new Orleans, wait outside LSU's Tiger Stadium to get a shot of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, during a mass vaccination event held in a partnership with the La. Dept. of Health, the La. National Guard and LSU, Sunday, March 14, 2021. It was expected that 800 doses would be administered by appointment, said La. National Guard Lt. Col. Dorrie Staal, Deputy Commander of Task Force Vaccine. (Photo by Travis Spradling, The Advocate)

BATON ROUGE, La. - Jerry Ceppos is running out of options as well as time.

On Aug. 23, LSU resumes in-person classes with a mask mandate but none for vaccines. Though students start moving in this week, social-distancing rules are still up in the air.

If Ceppos hews to the school’s plan, the 76-year-old mass communications professor — whose age and health conditions make him particularly prone to the now-more-contagious coronavirus — will start teaching a few-hundred students in a few-hundred-seat classroom in just a few weeks.

Or, if he can help it, he’ll stay virtual.

“Social distancing is logistically impossible if we have full classrooms,” he said. “If the school isn’t going to require vaccinations, we have to consider an online option.”

One of the only ways he can think of to exercise that option is to ask for disability accommodations. This week, Ceppos joined a host of fellow faculty members — exactly how many remains unclear — in filing petitions to work out exemptions under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Rosemary Peters-Hill is one of them.

The associate French studies professor said she has a medical condition that weakens her immunity to COVID and most any virus. While 90% of faculty say they’re vaccinated, LSU’s only sense of student inoculation rates comes from a self-reported, sparsely answered survey.

By that measure, just 30% of students say they took the jab.

Peters-Hill thinks lack of experience contributes to the disparity. Many students don’t live with family and might not feel the same responsibility or urgency to get vaccinated.

“As parents, as people who have lost family members, friends and colleagues, we know what this virus can do,” she said.

“We’ve lived it.”

With her immune deficiency and two children — aged 7 and 5, one with a heart defect, both too young for the shot — Peters-Hill shares Ceppos’ anxiety heading into the fall semester.

“I’m vaccinated,” she said, “but I’m terrified.”

With the prospect of standing before a 70% unvaccinated class amid a pandemic surge galvanized by the far-more-catchable delta variant, Peters-Hill would rather not take her chances.

She, too, filled out those ADA forms. And she urges colleagues in her shoes to consider the same tack.

“LSU didn’t give us the option to work from home because of COVID this semester,” she explained. “ADA accommodation requests are always available.”

Just a few months into his role as Louisiana State. University president, William F. Tate IV is under enormous pressure to get things right when it comes to pandemic protocols. In May, the month he was hired to replace Tom Galligan, 90% of the faculty voted in favor of required vaccination — something hundreds of universities throughout the U.S. have since managed to mandate.

The Advocate’s attempts to arrange an interview with Tate about the issue were unsuccessful. But in a July 29 Zoom meeting with faculty, he explained some of his rationale.

Mandating masks is a given, he told them. But requiring vaccines isn’t an option because it’s so legally fraught. Winston Decuir, LSU’s legal counsel, later explained that the university cannot make COVID-19 vaccination a requirement for on-campus learning without infringing on students’ constitutional rights.

LSU mandating vaccines would likely invite litigation — Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has already sued some other schools over the matter. The question of constitutionality, however, appears to be up for debate. In the first ruling of its kind, a federal judge recently upheld the constitutionality of Indiana University's decision to mandate COVID vaccinations.

As for social distancing, Tate told faculty in the Zoom call that he’ll announce those rules sometime this week.

During the July 29 Zoom call, LSU’s medical advisory committee suggested capping classroom capacity at 50%, which Tate said he’ll consider among other ideas.

Ceppos said he understands how tough these decisions are — especially for a new university president. But the stakes are too high to leave people hanging.

“I know the administration, and I know they’re concerned about our health and safety,” he said, “but the politics of this pandemic have resulted in their timid response to this great crisis.”

Ceppos said he vividly remembers the fear and uncertainty he felt ascending the stairs of LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication Building in March 2020, when the pandemic first reared its head in the United States.

Now, 17 months later, the thought of returning to the same place with so many of the same dangers is giving him flashbacks.

“That day is engraved in my mind,” he said. “And I don’t want to relive it. I don’t think anyone does.”

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