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Rutgers, Cornell mandate COVID-19 vaccines for students. Is this the new norm for college?

6 min read
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2021/04/07/coronavirus-college-university-vaccine-mandate-fall-semester/7107778002/

The class of 2025 could have a new prerequisite for college: Getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

The inoculations, once in short supply, have never been more readily available in the country. What’s more, tens of millions of people have already been vaccinated, and that rate is likely to increase.

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. But mandating vaccines will come with logistical and moral complications. 

Rutgers University in New Jersey and Cornell University in upstate New York were among the first universities to announce that their students would be required to be vaccinated if they wanted to study in-person during the fall semester. Brown in Rhode Island, Northeastern in Boston, Nova Southeastern University in Florida, and Fort Lewis College in Colorado have all announced similar policies. 

Antonio Calcado, Rutger’s chief operating officer, said the college’s leadership team made its decision when President Joe Biden announced that all adults would be eligible for vaccination by the end of May. (Though the president recently moved that date up to April 19.) The public university in New Jersey is one of the largest in the country with roughly 36,000 undergraduates and 16,000 more in graduate students on its campus in New Brunswick.

“It doesn’t just make us safer. In the end, it makes our entire community safer,” Calcado said. “That’s why we think requiring is the way to go versus encouraging.”

Calcado sees three good reasons to require student vaccinations. One, their population interacts with others often. Two, they tend to be mobile. And three, safety precautions may not be students’ top concern. 

Nicholas F. LaBelle, is the president of the student assembly at Rutgers, and he said he has mostly positive feedback about the mandate. A few people, he said, have been resistant about the requirement, but he said most view it as a moral responsibility. And it may be good for campus morale long term. 

“Everyone was pretty relieved when we heard about it,” he said.

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Though the policy has been lauded by students, the university has still built in medical and religious exemptions. Students studying online will also be exempt. Other institutions that have announced vaccine mandates have carved out similar exceptions for health or religious reasons. Nova Southeastern University’s requirement goes  further and requires that its employees be vaccinated as well. 

That university’s chief operating officer, Harry Moon, said it made sense that everyone be required to receive the vaccine given how interwoven campuses communities can be. 

Other institutions hope that encouraging students to get vaccinated will be enough to provide the coverage needed to bring students back to campus. Some are even hosting large-scale vaccination sites, like at the University of Florida

Catalina Pike, right, a University of Florida freshman, prepares to get her COVID-19 vaccine from UF senior nursing student Kayla Elliott during a mass vaccination effort by the University of Florida held at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville Fla. April 5, 2021.  [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

That institution is hoping to vaccinate 20,000 people every week for three weeks. Students at the site were almost uniformly excited about what a vaccine would mean for their day-to-day life. And Matthew Listro, a 21-year-old student studying electrical engineering at the university, said the vaccine will help him feel safer traveling back home to see his mother. 

“I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t give anything to her. This is one step closer to being back to normal,” Listro said.

And Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has been pushing to have young college-age students vaccinated before they travel home for the summer. Younger adults are generally less susceptible to the health effects of the virus, but DeWine said they are, “significant carriers.” 

‘We’ll see court cases’

Gerri Taylor, is the co-chair of the American College Health Association’s coronavirus task force, and she said the organization of college health care professionals hadn’t issued guidance on requiring vaccines for in-person learning yet. 

They are currently pushing to have students vaccinated before summer. The goal is to prevent them from spreading the virus when they travel home. 

Taylor said the organization is also seeking direction from the Centers for Disease Control on requiring vaccines. And the group is currently working on guidance for fall reopening plans, though she was encourage to see some colleges acting now 

Debbie Schwartz, the operator of the Facebook group Paying for College 101, said the parents she has spoken to want the, “traditional college experience.”  

If vaccine mandates would bring back in-person learning and normal social interactions, she said most parents would be in favor of those requirements. Though she did say some parents will be opposed to mandates of any kind.

At USA TODAY’s request, Schwartz asked the group of nearly 96,000 members, most of them focused on paying and preparing to send their children to college, what they thought of vaccine mandates. More than 1,000 people responded, and many of the respondents said they were in favor of vaccine mandates, saying some vaccines are already required. A smaller segment said they were fearful about the long-term medical effects or felt it was an infringement of their civil liberties. 

Students and families looking for a vaccinated environment may have more luck at private colleges over their public counterparts. These institutions have more autonomy of what they do and what they require of students. Though public colleges do require some vaccines for sickness such as measles or even the flu. 

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of Law who studies vaccine law, said even before the pandemic it was normal to see variation in universities’ vaccine requirements. More universities may also make decisions after they see their peers act, she said.

The Food and Drug Administration’s emergency approval of the currently available vaccines also complicates the process. Under the, “emergency use authorization,” participants are supposed to be given the option to accept or refuse the vaccine and the consequences for failing to do so, Reiss said. That could open some universities to legal challenges.

But the act refers to the authority of the Secretary of Health and Human Services, not specifically that of colleges and universities, Reiss said. And though the FDA does not mandate vaccinations, the CDC has said a state government or employer could require shots. What’s more, many colleges already rely on medical techniques approved via the FDA’s emergency authorization in the form of coronavirus tests, Reiss said. 

“I am very sure we’ll see court cases,” she said. “I am also fairly certain – though you never know with the courts – most or all of them will lose.”

But don’t expect to see the campuses of 2019 right away, even with vaccine mandates. Calcado, the Rutgers administrator, said he expects distancing requirements, mask protocols and similar precautions will remain in play during the fall. And he said there won’t be large lecture halls full of students anytime soon. He did say he expects to see more people on campus, just not all at the same time. 

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Taylor also said vaccine mandates wouldn’t be an immediate return to normal. And some campuses may be able to reopen more quickly than others based on their student population and community transmission rates. She also said mandates are dependent on steady supplies of the vaccine. What’s more, it’s unclear how the variants of the virus spread among young people, and she cautioned against complacency, saying “this has been an unpredictable pandemic.” 

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