On move-in day in August, students in the Texas Academy of Leadership in the Humanities arrived at their dorm at Lamar University and were handed a blue slip of paper.
The form asked the students – gifted high school juniors and seniors from around the state – if they had been vaccinated against the coronavirus or if they planned to get immunized. With just a few exceptions, almost all of the nearly 30 students said they had already been vaccinated.
Relieved by the outcome, student services coordinator Bruce Hodge emailed the results of the survey to the university dean who oversees the program. Shortly thereafter, he said, the dean responded and asked what he planned to do with the information.
In conversations with the dean, Hodge said he wanted to be prepared for a worst-case scenario. He and his colleagues who run the program essentially act as parents in absentia for the mostly 16- and 17-year-old participants, making sure they are safe in their dorm rooms each night, caring for them in sickness, and even taking them to urgent care or the emergency room if needed.
“I could foresee a situation with an incapacitated student where I couldn’t reach a parent and a doctor is asking me if they’re vaccinated,” Hodge told The Washington Post.
But Hodge said the dean seemed “peeved” by the blue slips, which he and a colleague, counselor Karen Corwin, had conceived. After meetings with school administrators, Hodge and Corwin told The Post they were summoned to the university’s human resources office in mid-September and summarily terminated.
“There was no discussion. There was nothing,” Corwin said.
While officially they were given no explanation – Texas is an at-will employment state where employers can generally fire workers for no reason – Hodge and Corwin say they believe they were let go because of the politicization surrounding coronavirus vaccines in Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has banned government vaccine mandates.
“I don’t think you have to be a super-detective,” Corwin said.
Speaking to The Beaumont Enterprise, university spokesperson Daniel McLemore declined to comment on the personnel matter in an effort to protect the privacy of university employees. He also would not give more information on whether the university was speaking with dean about the incident or if any other faculty or staff have asked about students’ vaccination status.
“All of our policies are spelled out on all of our websites and our employees are aware of those,” he said. “But it does again fall again under that same personnel issue that we are not going to comment to the specifics to this case.”
As another school year in the coronavirus era gets underway, vaccination is not required at about half of the country’s largest public universities, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. Almost all of the schools not requiring students to be vaccinated are in states that have enacted policies restricting vaccine mandates, including Texas, Florida and Arizona.
In Texas, slightly more than half of the population – 51% – has been fully vaccinated, according to The Post’s vaccine tracker. While many of the state’s universities have shied away from requiring students to get vaccinated, citing Abbott’s executive order, some schools are incentivizing them by offering gift cards, football tickets and other rewards for those who get the shot.
At Lamar University in Beaumont, a midsize city about an hour and a half east of Houston, Hodge and Corwin said they were given little guidance over the summer on what covid-19 protocols the school planned to enforce come fall. On Aug. 26, three days after classes began, university president Jaime Taylor wrote a letter to faculty, staff and students encouraging them to get vaccinated and to wear masks on campus.
Juniors and seniors admitted to the Texas Academy of Leadership in the Humanities come to Lamar from across the state to complete their high school studies and earn college credit as they live together in the dorms. Hodge and Corwin said to participate in the program, students and their parents must fill out a host of paperwork about each child’s medical history.
“We collect just a voluminous amount of medical information on these students that normal college students don’t have to provide,” Hodge told The Post.
The academic program was, against all odds, able to proceed on campus last year even as the pandemic raged on. Students signed contracts agreeing to stay in their rooms and avoid congregating with others inside the dorm. Although there were a few students who tested positive last year, Hodge said they were able to avoid group spread.
“Dorm life was as safe as we could make it last year in a pandemic,” he said.
Early in the summer of 2021, with vaccines widely available and teenagers newly eligible for the shot, Hodge and Corwin felt hopeful about the fall semester. But as move-in day drew closer, the two started to worry about how the highly transmissible delta variant might impact participants. Hodge and Corwin said they tried to broach the subject of safety protocols with the new dean overseeing their program but got a lukewarm response.
So the day before their students were set to arrive, the two hatched the idea of the blue slips. Corwin printed them off, and Hodge handed them out with other check-in paperwork.
“Not a single student balked when we gave it to them,” he said.
Hodge noted that Lamar students are required to submit proof of vaccination against bacterial meningitis or a medical exemption form.
“We ask them about all kinds of vaccinations,” Corwin told The Post.
But the dean, who learned about the blue slips after Hodge emailed her with the results, wasn’t happy that the two had collected information on students’ coronavirus vaccination status, Hodge and Corwin said. The two told The Post they had a couple of meetings with her, during which she expressed her unhappiness. Then, days later, the associate provost and, inexplicably, the school’s chief of police showed up to collect the vaccination slips.
After a handful of interviews with university higher-ups, Hodge and Corwin said they were fired on Sept. 13. Corwin had worked for the program since 2005 and Hodge since 2013.
The dean who oversees the academy did not respond to an email from The Post seeking comment.
Hodge and Corwin both said they consulted with attorneys but were told they didn’t have grounds for a lawsuit because Texas is an at-will employment state. They agreed to speak with The Post because they believe their firings were unjust and politically motivated.
“What they did was shameful and wrong,” Corwin said.
“We thought we were protecting the students,” Hodge explained. ” . . . I would lay awake at night realizing the liability that rested on me and the shoulder of the academy with these 16- and 17-year-olds on campus.”
While Hodge is looking for work, Corwin is eyeing an early retirement. But they’re still concerned about the students they left behind in the program.
“I still worry,” Hodge said. ” . . . I just hope that everything’s OK, that nothing happens to a student.”
Written by Jessica Lipscomb