Will universities mandate COVID-19 vaccinations?

March 17, 2021

Dewilka Simons

When will normal life return to colleges and universities?

As students and university leaders long for the return of normality to university life, it is the development of the COVID-19 vaccine that offers a glimpse of hope. In response to the pandemic, schools across the country have closed their campuses or limited in-person classes and activities. Students are being infected with the virus, with an increase in cases occurring in the young adult population.  

Data has shown that college-age individuals engage in high-risk behavior that promotes the spread of the virus. As thousands of new cases continue to emerge on U.S. campuses, universities attempt to encourage behaviors to prevent the spread of infection, such as social distancing, wearing masks, and abstaining from social gatherings.  

The future plans of many universities are contingent on  “when a vaccine becomes available.” With vaccines now available, a new question has emerged:  will universities require students to vaccinate against COVID-19 due to the impact this virus has had on university life, and in an attempt to inch closer to a normal university experience? 

Getting people vaccinated: strong encouragement or introducing a mandate? 

Universities are reaching out for guidance from local, state and federal health authorities to determine how best to protect students and university staff members. Many university spokespersons have emphasized the approach of strongly encouraging vaccination— rather than making vaccinations mandatory.  

Schools are preparing to educate college populations about the safety and efficacy of vaccination via multiple social-media platforms. The hope is that this method will address fears, foster trust and engage individuals in learning and relaying the value of vaccination to others, thus further encouraging vaccination.  

However, there may be some hesitation among younger individuals about the vaccine. Recent polls have shown that young people are less likely to get vaccinated. Specifically, one-third of college-age students have reported not wanting to get vaccinated. In response to this data and to provide motivation for independent vaccination, some universities have offered incentives, such as tuition breaks and other rewards, to further encourage vaccination efforts. 

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Can universities legally require vaccinations?  

While some say it is not the place of universities to mandate students to vaccinate, requiring vaccinations is not unheard of. Many universities demand students provide proof of immunizations for diseases like chickenpox, measles and meningitis, or to provide a valid waiver based on medical or religious objections.  

Many universities have not yet set a COVID-19 vaccination policy in place. This is mainly due to the limited supply of the vaccine and lack of information about when it would be available to college students.  

Demand for the vaccine far outstrips supply, and college students are currently categorized by The Center for Disease Control (CDC) as phase 2 individuals: “As vaccine availability increases, vaccination recommendations will expand to include more groups.” These are generally young, healthy individuals with no underlying medical conditions. A vaccine may not be available for people in phase 2 for months to come. 

Moreover, distribution is dependent on state agencies and their vaccine allocation plans. Priority is currently given to healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents. This  may mean that healthy college students will have to wait much longer than current estimates.  

Compared to private institutions, public institutions may be less likely to require vaccinations and those that do could face court challenges. Harvard University is currently exploring if it can legally mandate the COVID-19 vaccination. Whether Harvard and other universities can make it mandatory for students residing on campus to be vaccinated may end up being the decision of the federal government.  

Any given solution is not one-size-fits-all. Policies that come into play may be different for certain groups of students such as international students, athletes and students living in residence halls. Universities have also noted the need to reach out to historically marginalized populations who may be more skeptical about vaccines. Nevertheless, university representatives see it is an “ethical obligation” needed to keep the community safe. And, even if universities do not mandate vaccinations for their students now, that could change down the line. 

Can universities vaccinate their students? 

In addition to the dilemma of acquiring the vaccine, it is possible that not all universities will have the resources to distribute and vaccinate their student population. Experts have suggested that universities across the country could be integral components of the vaccine distribution plan. This may be easier said than done. 

The COVID-19 vaccines have specific refrigeration requirements that must be met during storage and transportation to the designated vaccination sites. Strict guidelines also indicate the need for personnel with strong knowledge of handling the vaccines. Not all institutions may be equipped with the infrastructure to safely store the vaccines, or have the resources for additional manpower to staff vaccination sites and ensure safe and proper handling. 

A new normal?

When the time comes, universities will have to apply their own vaccination policies. Not only in terms of who must be vaccinated, but also where vaccinations will be performed, and who will pick up the cost of student vaccinations. Many students may not have access to adequate healthcare or financial resources to seek out vaccination. The federal government has indicated that vaccinations will be free and that any additional charges for administering vaccines will be reimbursed. Although, no-one can be denied a vaccine due to being unable to pay for it, universities may need to facilitate avenues for students to access vaccinations. 

It is doubtful that universities will be able to scale back the protective steps they have taken until a high percentage of the university population has been vaccinated. Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has stated that herd immunity may take several months even after the vaccine becomes more widely available.  

These protective measures could include further delaying in-person classes, beginning semesters in quarantine, and conducting thousands of COVID-19 tests on a weekly basis. Even after vaccines have been administered, individuals will still need to wear masks and maintain social distancing, indicating that the vaccine is neither the end-all-be-all of the pandemic nor the ultimate solution to return to a previous normal.

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