GI Bill benefits may be lost for college students who don’t comply with vaccine mandate

Dr. Marc CB Maxwell, Education Services Specialist, U.S. Army Garrison Ansbach Education Center, explains the differences in education benefits that are available to Veterans, service members and their dependents during a GI Bill community session.

Erika I. Ritchie

The Orange County Register

Military veterans eligible for GI Bill benefits at state and community colleges and universities with COVID-19 vaccination mandates may have to drop classes and would likely lose out on thousands of dollars in monthly housing allowances if they choose not to get the shot.

As the pandemic cleared out campuses in 2020, legislators changed rules that required veterans-turned-students to take at least some of their classes in person, allowing full-time virtual learning through this December. Unless legislators do another extension or make other changes, those refusing the vaccine who aren’t approved for religious or medical exempts at schools with mandates, have said they will pause their education or move out of state or apply to private institutions with less restrictive mandates.

The GI Bill requires veteran students to take at least one class on-campus to receive the full monthly housing allowance of about $3,300, which at most schools mirrors the cost of living. If they don’t, the amount they can receive drops to $900.

Hunter Holub, an infantry Marine who served at Camp Pendleton between 2014 and 2018, said he would choose to lose the money and possibly stall his education rather than take the vaccination. He is studying marketing at Saddleback Community College in southern Orange County.

“I won’t sacrifice my religion,” he said. “God comes first.”

There may be consequences with that choice, he said. “I had a combat job in the Marines and it doesn’t relate to anything now. I won’t be able to survive here and may have to move back to Wisconsin.”

The University of California and California State University systems and several community college districts and private schools have vaccine mandates in place. Some are offering weekly or bi-weekly testing as an alternative and some are still working through the requirements and possible exemptions.

California is the first state in the country that has said it will require COVID-19 vaccines for primary school children once the inoculations receive full federal approval and large companies, health care facilities and government entities nationwide have mandates in place. In many places, people are pushing back and leaving their jobs instead.

“Receiving a COVID vaccine continues to be the best way to prevent severe illness and hospitalizations and mitigate the spread of the virus,” said Hazel Kelly, a spokeswoman for the California State University system’s chancellor’s office, adding that all students including veterans were given several months to consider their choices.

By the end of September, all Cal State students had to submit proof of vaccination or have an exemption filed with the university granted on a medical or religious basis, and those students now have to undergo regular COVID-19 surveillance testing.

Under the mandate at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, which has at least 1,000 veterans enrolled each year, those who are unvaccinated have to test weekly and there were no medical or religious exemptions during the fall semester.

Desiree Campos Marquez, manager of the college’s veterans services as well as financial services and scholarships, said as many as 100 student veterans could be affected in the spring. To prepare, the college is considering alternate plans to support those students, including advocating lawmakers for an extension of current legislation that allows veteran students to be paid for online classes, she said.

Three lawmakers, Rep. Mike Levin, D- San Juan Capistrano, Rep. David Trone, D- Maryland, and Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D- Riverside, submitted a legislative proposal last month to extend the online opportunities through at least June.

“Student veterans continue to face significant challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and while I’m proud we were able to pass strong and historic bipartisan legislation last year to support them, it’s clear we need to build on that work and extend the protections available to them,” Levin said in a statement.

At Saddleback College in Mission Viejo — one of Orange County’s most popular schools for veterans — officials would not comment on the vaccinate mandate policy, because the requirements are still being decided, a spokeswoman said.

Greg Johnson, a 22-year Army veteran who works in the community college’s Veteran’s Office helping students navigate their GI Bill benefits, said he is regularly fielding questions from student veterans who are considering dropping classes rather than be vaccinated.

“It will be a huge problem, not just here, but at many schools across the state,” he said.

Johnson, who is nearing the end of his own education and refuses to take the vaccine, said he expects to not return in the spring.

“You can’t live on $900,” he said. “It’s impossible.”

In September, the South Orange County Community College District Board of Trustees — which oversees Saddleback — unanimously approved the vaccination mandate. A final decision on how it will be administered is expected in mid-November, said Jennie McCue, spokeswoman for the college.

She also pushed back on the Veterans Administration, saying legislation is needed “to relax the rule that students using the GI Bill must take at least one in-person class.”

“This federal rule was created in response to predatory private colleges, not to force veterans to be vaccinated,” she said.

Denae McClure, a 36-year-old mother of four is a full-time student at Saddleback College. This semester is her first time back after starting in 2003. She’s taking advantage of her husband’s GI Bill, which he is able transfer to her.

Like Holub, McClure said she is asking for a religious exemption for refusing the vaccine.

“I signed up for classes and they might accept the religious exemptions and I might have to be tested twice a week and pay for that,” she said. “I’m a mom of four kids and can’t afford that. Basically, my education is being taken away from me again. Shouldn’t people be supporting school?”

Congressman Levin’s office said Tuesday, Nov. 2, it is “optimistic that bill will become law by Dec. 20.”

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