The roster of colleges saying they will require students to be “fully vaccinated” before returning to campus this fall is growing rapidly, posing a high-profile test of COVID-19 mandates as some governors block unequal treatment of those who spurn the shots.
Rutgers University in New Jersey opened the floodgates last month before Ivy League giants Cornell University and Brown University and lower-profile schools announced similar rules in recent days. They say the requirement will allow them to reopen classrooms, dorms and dining halls.
Other colleges decided to give students incentives instead of forcing them to get immunized from COVID-19.
Dickinson State University in North Dakota says each student who presents a vaccination card will receive a “Bustin’ Out” pin or bracelet to wear, exempting them from the campus mask mandate.
Activity on college campuses was partially blamed for the spread of the virus last spring, so administrators are hoping to avoid a repeat while bringing back social life for their students.
Anticipating some pushback, the institutions are offering religious exemptions. But COVID-19 plans outlined on paper could run into challenges in the real world, notably state-issued bans on “vaccine passports” at institutions receiving public funds.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed an order April 2 prohibiting government entities and businesses from requiring vaccine verification documents. That forced Nova Southeastern University to reexamine the requirements it announced one day earlier. The private, not-for-profit institution wants students at any of its Florida campuses to be fully vaccinated as of Aug. 1.
“Since our April 1st announcement concerning vaccinations there has been an executive order issued by the governor on the subject and we are currently reviewing all sections of that order,” university President and CEO George L. Hanbury II said Thursday. “Additionally, the president’s office has been hearing from the NSU community in the past few days — some expressing support and others sharing your questions and concerns. All of this is being considered thoughtfully, and we will have more details for you by next week.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, issued an order forbidding vaccine passports at entities that receive “public funds through any means,” including many universities and colleges.
The order might be moot for the University of Texas, which said it does not plan to require proof of vaccination.
Mr. Abbott asked the state Legislature to “address this important privacy issue” in its current session.
“I am not sure if the governor has the power to act unilaterally here. That would be the basis to halt it,” said Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law. “States have elaborate statutes that discuss vaccinations for K-12 and universities.”
Experts say it isn’t surprising that colleges are looking to seal off their campuses from COVID-19 after a tumultuous year of virtual learning and hybrid models.
“It’s something that’s completely predictable. Do I think it will run afoul of political objections? Yes. Do I think those objections will hold up? Not a chance,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine.
He said the courts likely will point to colleges’ long history of requiring proof of vaccination for sicknesses such as meningitis and some state leaders will decide it isn’t worth meddling in campus affairs.
“It’s a little bit like deferring to mayors when you’re dealing with colleges,” Mr. Caplan said. “They’re little cities, and they set their policies.”
A New York Times survey has recorded more than 500,000 COVID-19 cases and over 100 deaths tied to colleges and universities, mostly of campus employees.
Colleges are establishing vaccine rules as the U.S. rollout enters a critical phase. Governors are opening appointments to younger adults and must make the shots available to all adults by April 19.
“I have every reason to believe that students will be able to access one of the three approved COVID-19 vaccines in time for the fall term,” Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus wrote to students on April 2, the same day Colorado opened eligibility.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers someone to be fully vaccinated 14 days after receiving the one-shot version from Johnson & Johnson or the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine. Pfizer’s vaccine is authorized for use in those 16 and older, and the others are approved for 18 and older.
The Biden administration is hopeful that the vaccination campaign will begin to wrangle the virus to manageable levels by the summer, but health officials are worried about rising case counts fueled by variant-fueled outbreaks among young athletes and adults in their 20s through 50s.
Many universities are offering the vaccines on campus.
Oakland University in Michigan, which is mandating vaccination for on-campus students by Aug. 27, set up immunization sites this week for students, faculty and staff.
“We are fortunate that Oakland is receiving these vaccines at a time when Michigan is experiencing a dramatic increase in both the number of COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 variants,” university President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz said. “The most effective way to prevent infection and transmission of this virus is vaccination. I expect everyone will do their part and get vaccinated.”
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