Two Texas university employees fired for collecting COVID-19 vaccine information on students

Two employees of Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas claim that they were fired for asking students if they are vaccinated or plan to be vaccinated. The two employees said they were collecting the information in order to protect the young people.

We aren’t talking about regular college students here. We are talking about 16 and 17-year-old high school students. Thirty students participating in the Texas Academy of Leadership in the Humanities program at Lamar University are gifted students. In the program, they have the opportunity to attend classes, live in the dorms, and earn college credits. Bruce Hodge, who is in charge of the program, and Karen Corwin are employees of Lamar University. They supervise the students in the program, make sure they are safe, and make sure they receive medical assistance if they become ill.

During move-in day in August, Hodge, and Corwin distributed blue slips of paper to the teens asking about their COVID-19 vaccine status. Were they vaccinated? If not, were they planning to be vaccinated? Most of the thirty students were already vaccinated, so the adult supervisors were relieved by that response. Hodge emailed the results to the dean in charge of overseeing the program. The dean asked what Hodge intended to do with the information and acted “peeved”. By mid-September Hodge and Corwin were fired.

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.

Texas is an at-will employment state, so a reason wasn’t required to be given. Hodge blames it on the politicization of vaccine mandates, as it has become in Texas. Governor Abbott banned government vaccine mandates. Lamar University is a public university. All of this sounds like a combination of poor communication, a school supervisor going rogue, and then the inevitable Abbott-bashing.

Some of the Texas universities are not asking if students are vaccinated against COVID-19, pointing to Abbott’s order. Others incentivize vaccinations by offering gift cards, football tickets, and other freebies. High school students who participate in this program are asked extensively about their medical history, including vaccination records. There was no real guidance about COVID-19 vaccines, though, according to Hodge, so he took it upon himself to ask. He did so without consulting with the dean in charge of the program. It looks like that was his first mistake. Frankly, he should have known better, especially given today’s atmosphere. Everyone is highly aware of medical privacy issues surrounding the vaccines and in this case, the teens are minors. In other words, high school teenagers provide more medical information than is typically asked of regular university students. But, since the upper management of the university were not forthcoming with guidance on how the coronavirus pandemic mandates, or if there would be any specific mandates this academic year, Hodge went rogue. Hodge said he and Corwin came up with the idea the day before move-in day. None of the students “balked” at being asked, he said.

Hodge and Corwin had a couple of meetings with the dean and she expressed her unhappiness with them for collecting the information. A few days later, an associate provost showed up and collected the blue slips. The dean isn’t talking to the press. Both had been with the program for a while – Corwin since 2005 and Hodge since 2013. Hodge should have known the chain of command and at least consult with the dean. When Corwin says there was no discussion before the terminations, that isn’t exactly what happened if they had meetings with the dean and were aware of her reaction.

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.”

Hodge may have been thinking about the liability but that is obviously what the dean was thinking about, too. She didn’t want the university sideways with the governor’s order. Frankly, I’m not sure that just asking if a student is vaccinated violates the order. The order says there can’t be a mandate, a requirement, that the student is vaccinated for COVID-19. It doesn’t stop anyone from getting a vaccination. It doesn’t put a halt to collecting medical information. Scapegoating the governor’s order may be a stretch.

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