Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio, R-Riverhead, held a press conference Friday to speak out against the plan to require all students attending state colleges and universities this fall to take the vaccine as a requirement for enrollment.
"With what we now know about the virus and the necessity for vaccinating young people, students should not be forced to choose between getting the shots or attending college," Giglio said. "The vaccines are still considered experimental, and we should not be forcing them on this extremely low-risk population."
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The SUNY website says the school system will require all in-person students to be vaccinated, upon approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"SUNY continues to follow the latest science and data to develop policies that prioritize our students' health and well-being," the website says. "Mandatory vaccination, at this point, will allow our campuses to re-open normally this fall as well as protect our neighbors and help local communities reopen safely."
According to Giglio, the state's inoculation plan exempts professors, administrators, and staff, and it violates the rights of students to make choices about their own health.
"Using college admission to force vaccines on students who don't want them is completely out of line with a free society," Giglio said. "I don't think the shots should be forced on people or made a prerequisite to attend college, whether they receive FDA approval or not."
The Assemblywoman pointed to reports of side effects and complications that she says have not been fully investigated as a key reason for students to be wary of the vaccines.
"We are looking at a huge experiment on society with a vaccine that was rushed into production without the appropriate research," Giglio said. "Let's not make our younger population part of this experiment, especially if there is greater risk of harm from the drug than from COVID."
The debate over student inoculations has also centered on medical exemptions and allowing students to show proof they have had the virus as a reason for refusing the vaccines.
"The most cautious approach at this point would be to allow students to simply attend school without the vaccine until we know more about this biological agent," she said.
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Gale Baldwin said her grandson graduated from Suffolk Community College and is set to attend Farmingdale in the fall, but the vaccine requirement may cancel his plans.
"His mother is a nurse, and she does not believe the vaccine is safe," Baldwin said. "No one in our family is getting the shots because we believe the risk of the vaccine is worse than the virus itself."
Speaking for her daughter, who is enrolled in the Early College Student Acceptance Program at Suffolk Community College, Shannon Reitz said there is an education deficit being experienced across the country.
"Forcing vaccines on families that don't want them is wrong, and our children will be left behind even further if they are denied a normal educational experience," Reitz said. "We are a single parent household relying on the reduced tuition this program offers to help minimize college costs. Now, my daughter is being told she may not be able to pursue this opportunity because she refuses to get an untested vaccination. This is a terrible policy for the health of our children and their economic future."
A Suffolk County mom at the rally, who did not want to be identified, said she does not want her college-aged daughter to get the vaccine.
"I think that we have a right as an American citizen to decide what we do or do not put into our bodies," she said.
According to SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras, nearly 75% of SUNY students have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
SUNY is sponsoring a "30 Day Vax Challenge" to encourage students to get vaccinated.
"We would like to get as many people vaccinated on our campuses as possible because that allows us to return to normalcy," he said.
Malatras said students, faculty and staff who are unvaccinated this fall will still have to wear masks and undergo weekly surveillance testing.
"Not just because we're trying to punish them. It's because we're still trying to manage the crisis for those who are unvaccinated," he explained.
Malatras explained that even if one of the vaccines gets full FDA approval, SUNY cannot require faculty and staff to get the vaccine due to union regulations.
Dozens of private colleges and universities in New York are already requiring students to be fully vaccinated this fall.
Malatras said SUNY is following the New York State Health Department guidance and will await full approval of a vaccine before making it mandatory.
Eyewitness News has learned that some SUNY students are planning a rally for Monday to protest any mandatory vaccinations.
Despite opposition, health experts say getting the COVID-19 vaccine is the best way to halt the spread of the virus, especially as variants such as highly transmissible Delta variant become the dominant strain across the country.
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