Will more colleges follow Rutgers and require the COVID-19 vaccine?

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief:

  • Rutgers University says it will require students who enroll next fall to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Employees are “strongly urged” to do so.
  • Officials cited “assurances from the federal government” that vaccines will be widely available by May as part of the reason for the decision.
  • It’s the first institution to mandate the vaccine for students, but public health and legal experts predict that more colleges will follow.

Dive Insight:

Now that Rutgers has issued its mandate, “there’ll be increased pressure on schools to take a stance and to be transparent about what they plan on doing in the fall,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Pasquerella said AAC&U members are in the early stages of thinking about what a vaccine mandate would entail, though she expects some of them to follow Rutgers’ lead.

COVID-19 vaccine

Many colleges have said they plan to hold fall classes mostly or entirely in person in recent weeks. However, their plans hinge on the public health crisis being under control. Coronavirus case counts have decreased significantly from their peak this winter, and the Biden administration has pledged the vaccine would be available to all adults by May. But everyone won’t be vaccinated by then-current projections indicate that it’s still months away. And a recent uptick in cases is worrying some public health experts.

Whether colleges can require the vaccine is a new legal territory. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved three vaccines under an emergency use authorization, which is more limited than full approval. Rutgers confirmed it would require the vaccine under EUA. The federal statute authorizing the FDA to issue EUAs suggests that vaccines cannot be mandated, meaning such a requirement could spur a legal challenge. However, a school responsible for students’ health and safety “would have a stronger argument” that the vaccines’ EUA status wouldn’t prevent a mandate, said Robert Field, a law professor at Drexel University in Pennsylvania.

And the law doesn’t specifically mention colleges, Dorit Reiss, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and a machine Working Group on Ethics and Policy, the member said. While there aren’t many legal challenges involving colleges mandating vaccines, Reiss noted, those that exist suggest institutions “are on solid grounds” doing so. Field said that offering online instruction options for students could help colleges protect against legal challenges if they mandate the vaccine; colleges already require students — with some exceptions — to get certain vaccines. Still, they haven’t ordered one with an EUA.

“This is an unusual circumstance in that regard,” said Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force. Barkin said that wider vaccine availability, particularly for younger people, has “accelerated the conversation” around whether colleges would add the COVID-19 vaccine to their immunization requirements. Spring is also a critical point in the admissions cycle as students decide where to enroll for the fall. “Waiting for approval may mean students will not know when they decide if a vaccine is mandated, and that may be unfair,” Reiss said. “Announcing early gives students the information they need,” Reiss said. Requiring the vaccines for faculty and staff to follow a different legal framework could include negotiating with employer unions or going through a shared governance process. At least one worker at a detention center in New Mexico has already challenged an employer’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

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