A stream of students and parents circled the Lenoir-Rhyne University campus in Hickory Thursday afternoon. Their cause: a protest of the university’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement.
About 100 people showed up for the protest, organized by Lenoir-Rhyne student Aubrey Holman. Under a sweltering sun, they made clear their opposition to the vaccination requirement for the fall semester, which Lenoir-Rhyne announced in late June.
The university hasn’t been receptive to their calls to end the mandate, Holman said. She said she felt a public display was important.
“I’m not going to be able to change the mandate, but I want them to know how people feel,” she said.
The crowd, which gathered at a parking lot, was split between students who don't want to get the vaccine and parents who feel it isn’t right for the university to require their children be vaccinated.
Lenoir-Rhyne expected possible backlash to the vaccine requirement but the decision was made in the interest of health and safety, according to a statement from the university.
“While not always popular, the primary concern in public health issues is to make decisions that are in the best interest of the collective community, not individual desires,” the statement said.
Jennifer Faulkner-Teague, a parent at Thursday's protest, was there to support her daughter with a sign that read, “Students were allowed in class last year with a mask and social distancing during the height of COVID. Now, that is NOT an option. WHY?”
Faulkner-Teague’s daughter, Alexa Faulkner, is a rising sophomore at the university. She’s wanted to be a Lenoir-Rhyne Bear since she was 6 years old, Faulkner-Teague said. Now, because she is opposed to being vaccinated, she may leave the school. “I’m here out of disappointment. Out of anger,” Faulkner-Teague said.
Faulkner applied for a religious exemption from the vaccination requirement, stating her Christian religion exempted her. She cited Bible verses she felt upheld her decision. Her exemption was denied.
It is late in the year to transfer to another school, and Faulkner has already registered and paid for classes, Faulkner-Teague said. She plans to seek legal help.
“The plan is to fight and fight and not give up,” Faulkner-Teague said.
Several at the protest shook signs declaring: “My body, my choice.” Kylie Dillard, a Lenoir-Rhyne student who urged Holman to organize the protest, believes people have the right to choose what goes in their body.
“They want us to get the COVID vaccine, but we don’t ever have to get the flu shot,” Dillard said.
Misty Watts stood with her daughter as they held the signs for passing cars to read on campus.
Watts said she didn’t like the push for vaccination.
“Shouldn’t you depend on God a little more if you’re a Christian school?” Watts said.
Bobbie Kirby, who has a son in school at Lenoir-Rhyne, said she felt the student body and parents weren’t consulted in the decision-making process.
“I was shocked that they would do that,” Kirby said. “They are supposed to be a Christian school, but they’re not acting very godly. I don’t see how you can force that.”
Kirby said she felt the requirement was announced too late, not giving students enough time to make a decision. “I feel like they did that in a manipulative way,” she said.
Ultimately, it’ll be her son’s decision whether to get the vaccine, she said.
Holman says she isn’t going to get the COVID-19 vaccine now. She said that, if more research shows that the vaccine is safe in the long term, she may be more open to it. “I’m not anti-vaccine by any means,” she said.
As it stands now, though, she’s unlikely to be vaccinated, and the school says those not vaccinated will either have to defer enrollment or go to another school.
Holman met with university representatives to voice her concerns in a virtual meeting but it didn’t go well, she said. She didn’t feel her concerns were taken seriously, she said.
“In the first few words that were said, I knew I wasn’t where I should be,” Holman said.