Pushback Challenges Vaccination Requirements at U.S. Colleges

Social distancing as well as face covering is recommended at the COVID-19 vaccination site in the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus in Jackson, Miss., July 27. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

The quickly approaching fall semester has America’s colleges under pressure to decide how far they should go to guard their campuses against COVID-19 while navigating legal and political questions and rising infection rates.

Hundreds of colleges nationwide have told students in recent months they must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before classes begin.

California State University, the country’s largest four-year public university system, joined the list last week, along with Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. Their announcements cited concerns about the highly contagious Delta variant and came as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated mask guidelines based on new research regarding its spread.

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.”

Yet many more colleges have held off on vaccine mandates in a reflection of the limits school leaders face in adopting safety requirements for in-person classes.

Opponents say the requirements tread on personal freedoms.

Some campuses have sidestepped pushback by instead offering enticements, such as prize drawings for free tuition and computers, as they seek to boost student vaccination rates to 80% or higher.

Private colleges like these have more legal leeway regarding coronavirus rules, experts say. Prominent private universities mandating student vaccinations include Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Duke and Stanford.

University of California law professor Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, who writes and teaches about vaccine law, said the biggest legal gray area is whether colleges can require the COVID-19 vaccines while they remain under federal emergency use status.

Courts will likely allow university leaders to take such steps to protect student health, but many colleges can’t avoid the reality of states taking a stance against vaccine mandates, Reiss said.

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, who’ll be a sophomore at Indiana’s main campus in Bloomington this fall, said he had anxiety about getting the shots and likely wouldn’t have done so without the requirement.

“But I don’t want to be stuck doing 100 percent online,” Hamilton said. “I want to be back on campus and actually trying to have a normal college experience.”

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. But their requirements vary.

The University of Washington and the University of Maryland, for example, are among the public schools mandating shots for both students and employees. The University of Connecticut and the University of Maryland require the doses for students but not faculty or staff.

In some cases, union contracts or state laws prevent schools from requiring staff member vaccinations.

Meanwhile, the University of California and California State University — California’s two major state systems, with more than 750,000 total students — initially were holding off on inoculation requirements until at least one COVID-19 vaccine had full Food and Drug Administration approval. But both have now mandated shots for students and employees.

Religious and medical exemptions from vaccine requirements are commonly offered, although the universities are generally making those students undergo frequent COVID-19 testing and wear masks in public areas.

Opponents of student vaccine requirements have gone to federal court challenging mandates issued by Indiana University, the University of Connecticut and the 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.

Indiana University says nearly 85% of its students have reported receiving at least one dose. Purdue University, Indiana’s other Big Ten school, isn’t requiring vaccinations but is telling students who don’t submit documentation that they could face weekly COVID-19 tests.

Purdue, which says at least 60% of students are vaccinated, tried to entice students to get the shots with 10 prize drawings for a full year’s tuition.

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