A growing number of U.S. colleges have announced that students will need to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to attend classes this fall.
According to NPR, Rutgers University in New Jersey was the first establishment to require vaccination for all students who want to attend fall 2021 classes on campus. Most recently Duke University in North Carolina announced a similar policy, joining the ranks of the University of Notre Dame, Brown, and Cornell universities, and Northeastern University in Massachusetts.
“Vaccinations are an important tool for making the fall semester safe,” said Antonio Calcado, the executive vice president and chief operating officer at Rutgers University who has been leading their COVID-19 task force. “We felt that simply encouraging would not have the same effect as a requirement.”
During the pandemic, many colleges, especially residential campuses, were challenged by the virus as students attended parties off campus and brought the disease back into their dorms. While young people have less COVID-19 risk, their return to campuses last fall spiked a deadly number of coronavirus infections not only on campuses, but also in the communities surrounding the colleges, said The New York Times. Deaths in communities that are home to colleges rose faster than the rest of the nation.
A Times survey found more than 397,000 infections in 1,800 colleges and universities that included at least 90 deaths among students and staff.
According to NPR, requiring students to show proof of the MMR, or measles, mumps and rubella vaccination, has been mandatory in about 87.5% of four-year colleges in all 50 states.
“This is not new,” said Calcado. “We have a whole portal for uploading your vaccine history and all those types of things. So that’s already in place.”
Students may be barred from attending classes or living in campus dorms unless they meet this requirement, say experts, who add that state laws often allow colleges to mandate vaccinations.
“Most universities have the power to require vaccines,” said law professor Dorit Reiss, at the UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. “But it does depend on what the college can do generally on vaccines and what they’ve done in the past.”
However, Reiss said that while vaccine mandates have stood up against legal challenges in the past, our three COVID-19 vaccines, may not. They are the first vaccines to be given emergency use authorization, or EUA, by the Food and Drug Administration for nationwide distribution. This means that they are not officially approved by the FDA, a point which could make college mandates difficult to uphold, she said.
“There almost certainly are going to be legal challenges because the anti-vaccine movement is already preparing them,’ Reiss said, as per NPR. “The main arguments will include the EUA question and the fact that these vaccines are early in use.”
Official FDA approval for the CVOID-19 vaccines could come by the summer. And Reiss added that many colleges may also offer medical and religious exemptions for students. The American Council on Education issued a brief that said even though the vaccines are being offered under the FDA’s EUA, “the legal right of institutions to require COVID-19 vaccination for students seems likely to be upheld as vaccine availability increases.”
Whether or not colleges will mandate vaccinations, Reiss says that most will still require “soft mandates,” such as wearing masks, frequent coronavirus testing and social distancing.
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