With the fall approaching, colleges reevaluate vaccination mandates

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief:

  • According to the Los Angeles Times, the University of California announced Thursday that it is mandating the coronavirus vaccines for students and faculty members — making it the most extensive public university system to do so.
  • On the same day, the University of Hawaii system nixed its vaccine mandate for the fall term, citing surveys it administered that showed the vast majority of students and employees had already received or planned to get the shots.
  • The two announcements highlight the nationwide debate about whether colleges can — or should — require the vaccines even though they haven’t yet received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Dive Insight:

reevaluate vaccination

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 580 campuses require at least some students or employees to get the coronavirus vaccine. But the publication notes that its count includes schools whose mandates depend on at least one of the vaccines receiving full FDA approval.

All three coronavirus vaccines available in the U.S. have only received emergency use authorization, which allows them to be administered quicker than is typical during a health crisis. College policies requiring students and employees to get approved vaccines under EUA are uncharted legal territory and could draw lawsuits. But some legal scholars think they are unlikely to succeed.

BY JANUARY, the FDA aims to determine full approval for the Pfizer vaccine, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said Friday. Pfizer applied for full FDA approval in early May, and Moderna followed suit in June, but it could take months before the agency decided. Decisions by California’s three public higher education systems highlight colleges’ different approaches as the fall nears.

In April, the University of California system said it would only mandate the vaccine once it received full FDA approval. But it changed those plans in light of strong student support for a mandate and medical studies showing the shots’ safety and efficacy, the Los Angeles Times reported. On the other hand, the California State University system is still waiting on full approval before it issues a mandate.

In May, the general counsel for California Community Colleges, which oversees 116 two-year schools, wrote a legal memo saying that community college districts have the authority to impose a requirement. But doing so could invite legal challenges that the sections are “facilitating unlawful human experimentation,” the counsel cautioned.

The University of Hawaii is one example of college officials pulling back a mandate contingent on full approval. “When we announced that all students would be required to be vaccinated to participate on campus, it was with the condition, and frankly the expectation, that at least one vaccine would be fully approved by the FDA by the fall semester,” University of Hawaii President David Lassner said in the announcement. He also noted that the University of California and the California State University initially took this stance.

Vaccine mandates aren’t an option for some colleges, however. At least eight states have passed laws that bar colleges from mandating coronavirus vaccines or proof of vaccination, The Wall Street Journal reported.

In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed a bill banning public schools and colleges from mandating vaccines without full FDA approval on Wednesday.

But Cleveland State University still requires residential students to be vaccinated for the fall term beginning Aug. 21. It says the move doesn’t violate Ohio’s new law because it doesn’t take effect until October.

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