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California’s two major university systems announced last week that they will require all students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before they return to campus in the fall. The University of California and California State University systems — with more than 760,000 students across dozens of campuses — are the latest schools to join a growing list of colleges that will mandate vaccinations at the start of the next academic year.
Vaccine requirements are far from universal, however. The University of Louisiana system will encourage students to get vaccinated but will ultimately leave the choice up to individuals. A number of colleges are waiting for more clarity on whether they have the legal authority to mandate COVID vaccinations before making their decision.
Colleges routinely require students to be vaccinated against diseases like meningitis and measles. But current coronavirus vaccines were given emergency-use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration, which makes the legality of mandates a bit more murky. The California schools have said they will enforce their mandates only after full FDA approval is granted for at least one vaccine. It’s unclear whether that process will be completed for any vaccines before the start of the fall semester. In some states, like Texas and Florida, schools could be blocked from requiring vaccinations by executive orders banning so-called vaccine passports signed by Republican governors.
As of last week, all Americans over the age of 16 are eligible to receive the vaccines. But young adults, who make up the majority of college students, have a long way to go before they match vaccination rates of older demographic groups. Only 9 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 are fully vaccinated, compared with 36 percent of the total adult population, according to the CDC.
Why there’s debate
Advocates for college vaccine mandates say they’re the only way to ensure that a version of normal campus life is possible. Many universities brought students back to campus last fall, only to experience major outbreaks in the following weeks. While young adults face significantly lower risk of severe illness or death, research shows that on-campus infections often spread to more vulnerable groups in the local community. “It doesn’t just make us safer. In the end, it makes our entire community safer,” said Antonio Calcado, chief operating officer at Rutgers University.
Distance learning has been a poor substitute for in-person education for many students, and universities have lost billions of dollars in revenue by not having students on campus. Supporters of vaccine mandates say it’s fair to ask students to take on the reasonably small burden of getting vaccinated to help keep their college communities open and safe.
The staunchest opponents of mandates say students and faculty should be allowed to make their own decisions about the vaccine. Others say vaccine requirements only make sense for schools in places with high community spread and a supportive political climate in which there’s a low risk it would spark a backlash.
There are also logistical concerns, like the lack of a national vaccination database and unequal health care access, that could make enforcing a requirement challenging. Some legal experts say schools are inviting expensive legal challenges if they move forward before the vaccines have full approval.
Vaccine requirements would infringe on personal freedoms
“Some students may object to a vaccination because of health concerns or because they question the long-term effects, despite scientific evidence of the vaccine’s safety. While the vast majority of students will likely get the vaccine, schools should honor the decisions of the few who object. … Wide-reaching vaccination is ideal but not at the cost of an individual’s choice.” — Editorial, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Protecting college students means protecting everyone
“The best way to halt virus mutation is to stop virus transmission. With over 20 million college students in the U.S., preventing infections among this age cohort will place a significant headwind to virus mutation, effectively protecting everyone in the population. This means that every college has a public health responsibility to require its students to be vaccinated.” — Sheldon Jacobson and Janet Jokela, Indianapolis Star
A mandate only makes sense at some schools
“Even if there was legal certainty surrounding requiring an EUA-approved vaccine, there are other issues colleges may be considering when weighing mandating vaccination. … Those include the school population’s views on the vaccine, and whether the college can reach herd immunity without a mandatory vaccine requirement, and the infection rate and/or vaccination rate in the nearby communities.” — Jillian Berman, Marketwatch
Universities need safe campuses to shore up their finances
“Colleges have been particularly hard hit by pandemic restrictions. They’re losing students who say they’re tired of paying full-price tuition for virtual learning, and that generally means less money for universities that may already be struggling financially. A vaccinated campus could be the step toward normality that college leaders are seeking.” — Chris Quintana, USA Today
Colleges are especially prone to major outbreaks
“College students are mobile and spread COVID-19 with them whenever they travel, and they live in congregate living facilities where infection rates are much higher than in other housing setups.” — Christopher R. Marsicano, NBC News
Colleges shouldn’t wait until the fall to get their students vaccinated
“In the coming weeks, while this population is accessible, we must seize the moment and vaccinate all college students for COVID-19. We should not squander this opportunity to make an enormous public health impact that will ripple across the entire country.” — Beverly Forsyth and Valerie Parkas, Daily News
Most students will accept a mandate that lets them get back to the normal college experience
“Students are eager to resume their normal on-campus routines, and while there is some hesitation about efficacy and safety associated with the vaccine, especially for students of color, a plurality of students see the vaccine as the quickest path back to normalcy.” — College Pulse director of research Anne Schwichtenberg to CNBC
Costly legal battles are inevitable
“There almost certainly are going to be legal challenges because the anti-vaccine movement is already preparing for them.” — Legal expert Dorit Reiss to NPR
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