Graduate students call out murky University guidance on vaccine eligibility for student-workers

April 5, 2021, 7:48 p.m.

Many Stanford graduate students are struggling to understand the University’s internal guidance surrounding vaccine eligibility, forcing them to make challenging ethical decisions about whether or not they should get vaccinated.

Their dilemma comes amid larger issues plaguing California’s slow and confusing vaccine rollout. The situation is bad enough that Governor Gavin Newsom is facing a recall effort gaining in supporters and momentum. 

For graduate students looking to get vaccinated, the first step is trying to understand state guidance. On Feb. 28, Santa Clara County opened up vaccine eligibility to frontline essential workers, a category which includes “those who work in the educational sector,” via California’s Phase 1B. 

These guidelines, however, leave graduate students in a gray area. Some — who conduct lab research, teach classes or hold other student staff positions — are considered University employees. However, many of those graduate students work remotely, and the occupational risk of contracting COVID-19 ranges vastly from position to position.

Graduate student workers have turned to Stanford administration in search of clearer guidance, but many are dissatisfied with how vague the University’s advice has been.

Two days before California moved into Phase 1B of the vaccine rollout, Associate Vice Provost for Environmental Health & Safety Russell Furr told students that the University believed the expansions would include “staff, faculty and postdocs, and may include students who are paid for their roles on campus or have work requirements similar to certain employees.” Furr clarified two days later that the University believed that individuals who work 100% remotely do not qualify as eligible education workers, but that “availability under the ‘education’ category may vary across different vaccination sites.”

“[Furr’s email] was so neutral to the point where you read it and you weren’t sure what you were reading,” said Eva de la Serna, a community associate (CA) and fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering. “He provided some helpful links, but it just got so diluted that it was very confusing and the reaction was just, ‘It seems like he’s confused, so I guess I’ll just wait and see what happens.’”

To add to the confusion, as Furr alluded, in practice, vaccination eligibility is rarely determined by Stanford. While some vaccination centers and volunteers request proof of employment, others are more lenient and give the vaccine to anyone who displays their appointment confirmation.

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote that Stanford has been working to provide accurate information so that “individuals can determine how they are affected.”

“We understand that the rapidly changing circumstances of vaccination availability, eligibility, and distribution can be complex and difficult to follow closely,” Miranda wrote to The Daily. “The university does not determine eligibility criteria. Eligibility criteria are determined by the state. State guidance is then interpreted by each county or, in some cases, by a specific vaccine distribution channel — not by the university.”

The messaging follows a common theme: Administrators pass along the information they receive, but individuals are responsible for making their own judgment about the legality of getting a vaccine. As a result, the burden has fallen on the shoulders of graduate students, Graduate Student Council Councilor K.C. Shah J.D. ’22 said.

“Regardless of whether you have an ethical quandary with getting a vaccine because you think you’re taking someone else’s vaccine and jumping in line, you should be able to make that decision based off of your own ethics, not information asymmetry [about whether it’s legal],” Shah said.

Many students have looked beyond Stanford’s updates, searching for clearer guidance from peer institutions, Serna said. Stanford and peer institutions alike have struggled to demystify the state’s vague classifications of the “educational worker” category. Still, the University of California, Berkeley encouraged graduate students who may qualify for the vaccine to try their luck booking an appointment. The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) told its community that UCLA faculty and staff members, including “all undergraduate and graduate students who are employees of UCLA,” are eligible to receive vaccinations as part of the education and child care sector.

Within Stanford, different student groups in the graduate community have had disparate experiences with vaccination guidance. As a CA, Serna received explicit guidance from the Graduate Life Office (GLO) encouraging CAs to get vaccinated and recommending that they take proof of employment to the vaccination site.

Serna said she was grateful to the GLO deans for providing clear messaging and encouragement. But her experience as a CA was a stark contrast to what she saw her colleagues in the chemical engineering department experience.

“The chemical engineering department didn’t provide any guidance about vaccines, and the School of Engineering did not provide any guidance,” Serna said. “There was a lot of hesitancy about whether they were jumping the line, and that was a very real concern. It took some discussion to figure out whether we are truly eligible ethically versus legally.”

When asked if the School of Engineering had offered any guidance, a spokesperson declined to offer additional comments.

While some graduate students think the lack of clear communication from the Stanford administration may discourage eligible students from getting the vaccine, others believe that it could have the opposite effect. Without explicit guidance about eligibility, ineligible students may sign up and fill up the few open vaccination slots.

“The only official guidance has been that for 100% remote work, people don’t qualify,” Vivian Zhong, a first-year Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering, said. “One would assume that all other grad students should get the vaccine then. It seems Stanford has tiptoed on that line of not wanting to explicitly encourage anyone to get the vaccine, but also not saying don’t do it, either.”

As the University moves into spring quarter with a much larger student population, including juniors and seniors who are now allowed on campus, demand for vaccinations from Stanford’s on-campus community will likely increase. Without more explicit guidance from the administration or the state, though, some students worry that, until all adults are eligible to be vaccinated on April 15, confusion will only build.

Shah, who commended the University’s approach to promoting mask-wearing and social distancing, said he hopes the University shifts its vaccine guidance to highlight the idea that “we’re all in this together.”

“The University can do a lot more with vaccinations,” Shah said. “It’s pretty simple. They can say, ‘If you’re eligible for the vaccine, go get it and do your part to keep your community safe.’ I think that would go a long way.”

Tammer Bagdasarian '24 is an Executive Editor for The Daily, and is planning to major in Communication and Political Science. He previously served as a News Managing Editor. Contact him at tbagdasarian 'at'

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