Idaho’s universities will follow vaccine mandate — at least for now

Some university employees and students could need to get COVID-19 vaccines in the next few weeks, while the state goes to federal court to challenge a Biden administration vaccine mandate.

The State Board of Education voted Tuesday to comply with the far-reaching executive order, but also sign onto a lawsuit against it.

But the unanimous board vote, which came at the end of a hastily arranged 10-minute meeting, leaves some key questions unresolved:

How many employees would have to comply? As written, Biden Executive Order 14042 extends to federal contracts exceeding $250,000. Employees on federal contracts must get the COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 8, unless they obtain a medical or religious exemption.

And Idaho’s universities clearly fall under the definition of federal contractors. Boise State University, the University of Idaho and Idaho State University receive at least $89 million in federal research contracts, collectively.

But that doesn’t necessarily answer the question of how many university employees would need to get vaccinated. It’s unclear if the order applies only to workers on a contract and workers who come in contact with these workers — or if it applies to the entire university staff. The State Board is still trying to figure this out, spokesman Mike Keckler said Tuesday.

In Arizona, the state’s three research universities have determined that the order extends to all staff.

How many students would have to comply? The order will not mandate across-the-board student vaccines. Instead, it would extend only to student-employees with a connection to the contracts.

It’s not immediately clear how many students would be affected. The State Board has no figures.

What is the Lewis-Clark connection? The State Board instructed the four-year schools — Boise State, U of I, Idaho State and Lewis-Clark State College — to take steps to comply with the executive order.

But while the three universities have identified $89 million in federal contracts, Lewis-Clark does not appear to have any contracts that fall under the executive order, President Cynthia Pemberton said Tuesday.

By extension, that means no Lewis-Clark employees or students would have to receive a vaccination. But in her email to the campus community Tuesday, Pemberton said voluntarily vaccinations remain “the safest path forward.”

“Please, if you can do so, get vaccinated,” she wrote.

One thing remains clear, however. A complex and contentious legal battle has just begun.

On Friday, Idaho signed on with Georgia and five other states, in a lawsuit that says the Biden executive order has jeopardized billions of dollars in state contracts, while sowing “nationwide confusion and disruption.” In all, 18 states have signed onto three separate lawsuits challenging the order.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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