After a year of “Zoom University”, colleges and universities are looking at the Covid-19 vaccine as the key to normalcy in the fall. But as with all things Covid in the US, it’s unlikely they will get there without some fights.
Over 400 institutions have announced vaccine mandates for the fall semester, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, with some schools telling students they will not be able to return to campus without the vaccination.
Policies vary from school to school. Some universities, like the University of Michigan, are requiring only students who are living in campus dorms to be vaccinated, though many others are requiring all students on campus to be vaccinated.
"[Mandates] will allow our students to be able to be in groups with their friends, in group projects, in group discussions, being with a roommate who is vaccinated. The continuous anxiety and fear will dissipate to some extent,” said Gerri Taylor, Covid-19 taskforce co-chair for the American College Health Association, quale recommended that institutions make the vaccine mandatory for students.
Despite measures like social distancing and masks, many campuses became hotspots for Covid transmissions last year, with some large public universities seeing close to 10,000 infections over the course of the pandemic. Many schools had students do a combination of in-person and virtual classes, while many student activities were cancelled or were conducted virtually.
From a public health perspective, vaccine mandates, especially on college campuses where students are often in close contact with each other, make sense.
Campuses are often “like a chain that has a bunch of links” as they can affect the spread of Covid-19 in the local cities or towns they are in. UN studia from last year, which is up for peer review, found that the reopening of college campuses last fall led to a rise in local infection rates in surrounding counties.
“Colleges campuses, with massive events where people gather a lot, create opportunities for these massive transmission events,” said Ana Bento, an infectious disease expert at Indiana University-Bloomington at the School of Public Health and co-author of the study. “The more individuals that are vaccinated, the less likely we are to have these mass super-spreader events.”
From a legal perspective, the mandates are still in a gray area since the vaccine has only been received emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration. Pfizer submitted its application for full approval of its vaccine in early May, though the approval process is expected to take months.
Over half the schools with mandates are not requiring faculty and staff to get the vaccine because employees, especially those who are a part of a union, have more protections compared with students. Many employers in the US have similarly been hesitant to implement vaccine mandates for their employees because of potential legal issues, which some employers with mandates are already facing.
Dorit Reiss, a law professor at UC Hastings School of Law, said that she still expects lawsuits from students even if the student mandates are on sturdier legal ground than ones for employers.
But “the bigger question is not will they be sued but will they lose a lawsuit, and I think colleges have a good chance of winning any lawsuits”, lei disse.
Reiss said lawsuits can probably make a good argument against a mandate on grounds that the vaccine is still under EUA, but these lawsuits are racing against the clock since Pfizer’s vaccine may get full approval by the fall. Courts have also historically upheld mandates for vaccines with full approval, and most of the schools with mandates said they will make medical and religious exemptions, which also lifts some legal load.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s data, the vast majority of schools with mandates are located in blue states, which is unsurprising given the disproportionate vaccine hesitancy among Republicans. The governors of a handful of Republican states, including Texas and Florida, have explicitly outlawed Covid-19 vaccine mandates to accommodate those unwilling to get the vaccine.
Colleges and universities have started to become the target of conservative groups who argue that vaccines are a personal choice and should not be mandated. A protest organized by conservative groups, including Turning Point USA and Young Americans for Liberty, saw over 300 “medical freedom activists” gather at Rutgers University in New Jersey, which was the first school to announce a mandate in March.
“Our children should not have to choose between going to a good state college and going out of state,” said the New Jersey assembly member Serena DiMaso, Oms spoke at the protest.
With the backlash, some schools have been hesitant to implement mandates and have instead opted to incentivize students to get vaccinated.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is giving students a Starbucks drink when they submit proof of their vaccination. Other schools are telling students campus will be opened to full capacity if a certain percentage of students verify they are vaccinated. Nova Southeastern University in Florida, which had to drop its mask mandate once it was outlawed by the state’s governor, is telling students that they will relax restrictions if 80% of students submit proof of vaccination.