UNF nursing student say they’re getting forced to decide: Get vaxxed or get axed

Amelia Simmons, Police Reporter

University of North Florida student, Kaitlyn Hevner, says she may have to step out of her last semester of nursing school because she has chosen not to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Hevner says she has a good reason for her choice— it goes against her religion.

In July, UNF’s nursing program told all students that local hospitals are “strongly encouraging” students to get vaccinated, and any nursing student who comes down with COVID-19 risks being ejected from their clinicals. 

Courtesy of Kaitlyn Hevner.

Above is the first in a series of messages sent to nursing students getting ready for their clinical.

A nursing student’s clinicals are essentially the internship portion of their degree. It is hands-on learning required to graduate at the end of the nursing program. 

In a second message to students, UNF Interim Nursing Director Cynthia Cummings sent a more clear-cut message. According to Cummings, hospitals went from “strongly encouraging” students to all but requiring it. 

Courtesy of Kaitlyn Hevner.

The School of Nursing has stated that the vaccination mandate is not the school’s decision and is instead required by the hospitals that the school works with for clinicals. In the last of the series of messages sent to Hevner, the message read, “The vaccine is now being mandated by our clinical partners, therefore to attend we must comply […]” implying that every hospital the school is working with will be requiring a vaccine for students to continue.

However, at least one of the hospitals UNF works with, UF Health, is not requiring the vaccine and has a protocol for unvaccinated individuals.

When Spinnaker spoke with UF Health their representative made this statement, “It is not mandatory, we do have a masking policy. Everybody is required to wear an N-95 mask, but you can opt-out of that if you are fully vaccinated, and can wear a surgical or cloth mask.” 

Hevner told Spinnaker she knew she needed legal guidance, “By this time I do think that I preemptively hired a lawyer because I knew this was going to escalate, I just had a gut feeling,”

Hevner received an email from school administrators stating, “Please understand that we cannot mandate the vaccine but our clinical partners have mandated & students who choose not to vaccinate will not be able to be placed at clinical sites which of course will not allow you to progress in the program.” 

Hevner responded to that email stating that she would be submitting a religious exemption from the vaccine. In response to the religious exemption, assistant professor Dr. Faith Adams responded, “There may be an opportunity to submit a ‘religious exemption’ at various clinical sites but to do so & await approval may require that you sit out the fall semester awaiting approval. As a result, this will pose a problem for you moving forward in the program.”

“So at this point, they are threatening to basically prevent students, because I am not the only one now, from moving forward in the program. Even with a religious exemption,” Hevner said. Prior to this issue, she had been scheduled to graduate this December.

At this stage in the issue, Hevner said she has no choice but to spend hundreds of dollars to hire a lawyer to complete the required religious exemption form. 

School staff responded to the lawyer’s email saying, “As previously noted, Kaitlyn may upload her religious exemption to MyClinicalExchange under COVID vaccination,” something that Hevner said she was never informed of. 

“I want to note that this was never previously noted. No one ever communicated this to me,” Hevner said when speaking with Spinnaker.

When Spinnaker spoke with Cummings a few weeks after these emails asking whether or not students had been aware of an exemption option from the vaccine from the start of the hospitals mandating it she said this, “Yes, they have been aware that they can submit an exemption.” 

The email went on to say “It is up to the clinical partner if they will allow the student to have access to their facility. They can see the student’s vaccination status under MyClinicalExchange. We don’t have any control of this and we are guests at the hospital.”

Hevner said UNF is passing the buck, “Again they double down, they are not taking the position of being responsible for defending their own students.”

When Spinnaker spoke with Cummings on Sept. 1, some time after the original emails and announcements were made, she said: 

“There’s been a whole lot of contention about vaccinations and mask-wearing and other things like that, if they’re not vaccinated they can submit an exemption, some hospitals are requiring vaccination for students, some aren’t, it just changes constantly.”

Hevner is not the only student who has faced this struggle in the nursing program. A student who has asked to remain anonymous asked the School of Nursing what alternatives the school would be offering for students who choose to remain unvaccinated for COVID-19. 

The student stated in their email, “While I understand that UNF’s partnered facilities all require to be vaccinated for in-person clinical, I need to understand what type of clinical alternative will be provided for the students who remain unvaccinated.”

The student received a response from associate professor Dr. Judy Comeaux, “At this point, there will be no alternative options for students who refused to vaccinate except to step out of the program with hopes that the institutions will release the requirement at some point… You will not be able to practice as a nurse nor as a nursing student without receiving the vaccine,” at this point the student faced making the tough decision of changing their major. 

Spinnaker also asked Cummings whether or not the nursing program ever offered online alternatives.

“When COVID hit last March, the students were pulled out, but they had pretty much finished their clinical. Then starting back in the summer the hospitals really needed the help and so we were able to get back in there and do our clinical we’ve never stopped,” she said. “We have a strong feeling that of course in order to be a nurse, you have to be in practice with patients. The best thing for students is to actually know what it is like in the hospital and care for COVID patients.” 

Cummings went on to say that she believes that UNF’s emphasis on having their clinicals in-person plays a large role in how successful the nurses that come out of the program have been: “Our simulations are traditionally based on emergency kind of situations, that we may see and go over in class… to add to what the students learning, but we keep them in the hospital. We only use about 10 percent simulation, that’s all we’ve ever used. We really feel that is why our pass rates, too, are high because students get exposed and they’re good nurses.”

In Hevner’s specific case, she has chosen to seek help from State Representative Anthony Sabatini who sent a letter on Aug. 20 to the UNF president and to Florida Governor DeSantis,

Courtesy of Kaitlyn Hevner.

Spinnaker asked UNF if Szymanski would comment on this letter, to which the Media Relations Coordinator replied with a comment from the school, “Several of the hospitals that UNF relies on for nursing students’ clinical placements are requiring our students to be vaccinated. Other local healthcare facilities are also beginning to announce similar requirements for students in many of our other health-related programs. UNF does not mandate any student to be vaccinated.”

Once Hevner came forward with her concerns, she said many students and parents reached out to her via social media with similar concerns. 

Courtesy of Kaitlyn Hevner.

Other students reached out to her even after receiving the vaccine,

Courtesy of Kaitlyn Hevner.

Another student reached out to Hevner because they got the vaccine after receiving an email telling them they would be dropped from their course if they did not comply, 

Courtesy of Kaitlyn Hevner.

Hevner says other students have hired legal counsel in this matter and she says that some students have chosen to drop from the program completely. 

“I know there are more students who got this vaccine under pressure, duress, or coercion, being told if you do not comply you will get kicked out.” Hevner believes this decision goes against nursing ethics.

As August 27 just passed, the add/drop period to receive a full refund has ended. Many nursing students who may have medical or religious exemptions from receiving the vaccine are now waiting to see if they will be placed for their clinicals. If they are not placed for their clinicals in person they will be forced to receive an incomplete in their classes. 

As for Hevner, she has chosen to stay in the program to see if she will be placed in a hospital for her clinicals. At the moment it looks like she will be placed at one of the hospitals that are not requiring vaccination, however, her myClinicalExchange is still rejected due to her not having the COVID vaccine. She is still awaiting confirmation of her placement, but as of right now Hevner says there doesn’t seem to be an issue with that clinical site and her vaccination status. 


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