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US Colleges Divided Over Requiring Student Vaccinations

American colleges and universities hope to return to pre-COVID life in the autumn. Some schools are urging students to get the vaccine but others are wondering if they should or legally could require it.

Colleges and universities that plan to return to in-person teaching have launched campaigns to get students vaccinated before the summer.

Universities including Rutgers, Brown, Cornell and Northeastern recently told students they must get vaccinated before returning to classes in the autumn. They hope to reach herd immunity among the student population. They believe it would permit them to lift space restrictions.

“It takes away any ambiguity about whether individuals should be vaccinated,” said Kenneth Henderson. He is the head of Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.


Kent State University Students get their COVID-19 vaccinations in Kent, Ohio, Thursday, April 8, 2021.

He added that making sure students are vaccinated will tell the surrounding town or city that “we are taking all appropriate measures.”

Northeastern and other colleges requiring shots believe they have the legal right to demand students be vaccinated. It is not unusual for colleges to require students to be vaccinated for other diseases. Last year, a court let stand a flu shot requirement at the University of California.

Leave the decision to students

However, some colleges believe they cannot legally require vaccinations and are leaving the decisions to students.

Officials at Virginia Tech University say they cannot legally require the vaccine because it has not been given full approval by the United States' Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has only approved some vaccines for emergency use in the U.S.

Legal experts say the COVID-19 vaccines’ emergency use approval makes a legal claim more likely. And some colleges may not require the vaccine to avoid legal problems.

Harvard Law professor Glenn Cohen teaches health law and bioethics. He argued there is no legal reason colleges would not be permitted to require COVID-19 vaccinations. It makes no difference that the shots have not been given full approval, he said.

The problem is that there is no federal law or court decision that helps colleges and universities decide how to move forward.

Other legal issues

The biggest problems could come in states that have already banned, or plan to ban, any vaccine requirements, Cohen said.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis this month banned all businesses from requiring anyone to show proof of vaccination. The order raises problems for Florida’s Nova Southeastern University. It plans to require students, teachers, and professors to get vaccinated. The college president said he will “respect the laws of our state and all federal directives.”

Texas also has a ban on vaccine requirements.

And then there are other problems for schools that require the vaccine. Federal law says colleges must work with any student who refuses a vaccine for medical or religious reasons. Also, there is no widely accepted proof of vaccination paperwork.

At Northeastern, officials are still deciding whether students will be asked to show some kind of vaccine record or just be asked if they have been vaccinated.

“We would expect students to be honest,” Henderson said.

American colleges are also struggling with what to expect of international students. Some may not have access to vaccines in their home countries. And some may not have access to vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S.

Several colleges say they are planning to make shots available for international students when they arrive.

Northeastern student Tyler Lee said he thinks requiring vaccinations is the right move because it will help stop the virus spread and protect the community. Students agree with the decision, he said.

“It’s Northeastern’s decision,” said Tyler Lee. “If I didn’t like it, I would transfer. And that’s what most students feel,” he added.

I’m Susan Shand.

Words in This Story

herd immunity - n. herd immunity is a form of protection from infectious disease when a large percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, whether through vaccination or previous infections, thereby reducing the likelihood of infection for individuals who lack immunity.

ambiguity - n. something that does not have a single clear meaning

appropriate - adj. right or suited for some purpose or situation

bioethics - n. the study of the ethical issues emerging from advances in biology and medicine.

transfer - v. move to another school

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