America’s colleges are under increasing pressure as the fall semester approaches. They must decide how far to protect their campuses from COVID-19, while also navigating legal and policy questions and rising infections rates.
In recent months, hundreds of colleges across the country have advised students that they must be fully immunized against COVID-19 in order to start classes.
California State University joined the list along with Michigan State University (the University of Michigan) last week. The announcements were made in response to concerns about the highly contagious delta virus variant. They came as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated mask guidelines that are based on new research.
CSU Chancellor Joseph I. Castro called case surges linked to the variant an “alarming new factor that we must consider as we look to maintain the health and well-being of students, employees and visitors.”
Many colleges are still avoiding vaccine mandates as a result of the limitations school leaders face when it comes to implementing safety requirements for students in person classes.
In many Republican-led states, governments have banned vaccine mandates, or school leaders face political pressure to limit their anti-virus actions even among students who live in packed residence halls. Opponents claim the requirements are a violation of personal freedoms.
As part of their efforts to increase student vaccination rates to at least 80%, some campuses have resorted to offering incentives such as prizes for tuition and computers.
A few, however, have gone against the grain in their GOP-led states. For example, Nova Southeastern in Florida required employees to get shots. Nebraska Wesleyan mandated vaccinations for its 2,000 students.
Experts say private colleges have greater legal flexibility regarding coronavirus rules. Harvard, Yale and Notre Dame are just a few of the prominent private universities that require student vaccinations.
Dorit Rubinstein Reiss is a University of California professor of law. She writes and teaches on vaccine law.
Reiss stated that while courts will allow university leaders to take these steps to protect student’s health, many colleges cannot avoid the reality of states taking a stand against vaccine mandates.
Reiss stated that “especially a state university, going contrary to the prevailing political views is likely going to be temporary.”
Coronavirus politics are a problem for many campuses that do not have vaccine requirements. Dr. Michael Huey is interim CEO of American College Health Association. In April, he recommended mandatory vaccinations for students who take on-campus classes.
Huey, a former executive director of Emory University’s student health services, stated that if you create a situation in which you don’t need vaccination, you can not ask about vaccine status, and you can’t have required testing or mitigation strategies like masking. It can’t be safely.”
Indiana University has so far prevailed against a court challenge to its student vaccine requirement, which school officials say is a “clear path forward” to removing limits on in-person classes, sporting events and social activities.
Noah Hamilton, a sophomore at Indiana’s main campus, Bloomington, stated that he was anxious about getting shots and probably wouldn’t have done it without the requirement.
Hamilton stated, “But I don’t want to be stuck doing 100% online.” Hamilton stated, “But I don’t want to be stuck doing 100 percent online.”
Among the some 4,000 college campuses across the country, more than 600 have imposed a vaccine mandate, according to tracking by the Chronicle of Higher Education. However, their requirements can vary.
For both employees and students, the University of Maryland and the University of Washington are two examples of public schools that require shots. The University of Connecticut, University of Maryland and University of Maryland require students to have the shots. Faculty or staff are not required to take the shots.
Sometimes, state laws or union contracts prevent schools from mandating staff members to get vaccinated.
The University of California and California State University, California’s two largest state systems with over 750,000 students, initially delayed inoculation requirements until at most one COVID-19 vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Both have mandated shots for employees and students.
Although exemptions for religious and medical reasons from vaccination requirements are common, universities often require students to undergo COVID-19 testing and wear masks when they are in public.
Students who are against student vaccine requirements have taken to the federal courts to challenge mandates from Indiana University, Connecticut University and California State system.
In the first ruling among those cases, a judge last month rejected arguments from eight students that Indiana University’s requirement violated their constitutional rights to “bodily autonomy” by forcing them to receive unwanted medical treatment.
Chicago’s court also rejected an appeal by James Bopp, their lawyer who has been prominent in conservative political causes. Bopp is a member of America’s Frontline Doctors. They criticize the COVID-19 vaccination and have been widely discredited for spreading misinformation about the coronaviruses and unproven treatments.
Bopp stated that hundreds of people have reached out to him across the country in order to challenge vaccine mandates. Bopp argues that the students he represents are not at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness, but they could be exposed to the potential dangers of the vaccine being administered under federal emergencies use authorization.
He asked, “Why are they being targeted to receive a vaccine that older adults are not required to take even though the risk is tremendously higher?”
Indiana University claims that nearly 85% have received at least one dose. Purdue University is Indiana’s other Big Ten university. However, it is not requiring vaccinations, but is warning students who do not submit documentation about the possibility of being subject to weekly COVID-19 testing.
Purdue claims at least 60% of students have been vaccinated. They tried to persuade students with 10 prize drawings to cover a year’s tuition.
Similar incentives are offered by many other schools, including the University of Wisconsin’s regional campuses offering 70 $7,000 scholarships for vaccinated students who live at sites with at minimum 70% vaccination rates. Missouri State offers a $150,000 scholarship program that includes free tuition, meal plans, and computers.
The face masks that were worn on campus campuses last fall won’t disappear as quickly as they had been expected. Purdue University and University of South Carolina announced last week that they will be reintroducing required masks. This is in response to the new CDC guidance which requires that all fully vaccinated individuals wear them indoors if they are in an area with high rates of virus transmission.
Rachel “Rae,” a Notre Dame freshman, was vaccinated with her sister, 16, this summer. She said that she was apprehensive about the vaccines because they are still relatively new. She was also concerned about the higher risk of COVID-19 infection on campus than in Evansville, Indiana.
Applegate stated that while I can understand people’s concern about not being told what to do but this (getting vaccinated), just makes sense to me. “When we are all together on campus like this… with the variants, it’s like we all want to feel as safe as we can.”