US university students face back-to-campus vaccine mandates

Legal precedent suggests that universities can mandate vaccinations, but not every COVID-19 vaccine has received full approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, leaving a legal grey area.

More than 1,000 United States colleges and universities are requiring students, employees or both to be vaccinated against the coronavirus this academic year, including Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut [File: Ted Shaffrey/AP Photo]

As United States college and university students gear up to return to campus for the fall semester after more than a year of remote or hybrid learning, education administrators across the country are making vaccination against COVID-19 a requirement for coming to campus.

More than 1,000 public and private colleges and universities have mandated vaccines for at least some students and employees so far, according to a database maintained by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Those mandates come as cases have surged in some parts of the country, particularly among unvaccinated people.

Yet in the same way that public health efforts like mask mandates and social-distancing measures have been politicised in the US, students’ reactions to vaccine mandates seem to largely fall along the same lines.

College students in a dorm during move-in day at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, the United States, where students, faculty and staff on campus are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 [File: Emily Elconin/Bloomberg]

While some students say they support making vaccination part of the back-to-school checklist, others are mounting challenges to the policy — including legally.

An emergency injunction filed by students at Indiana University against the school’s vaccine mandate made it all the way to the US Supreme Court, where Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett dismissed it without comment on August 13.

Three days later, students at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a non-profit known for anti-vaccine activity, Children’s Health Defense, filed their own lawsuit against Rutgers accusing the school of coercing students to get an “experimental” vaccine.

And as American students head to campus for the fall semester, the vaccine mandate debate is far from over.

Students weigh in

Alan Gutierrez is relieved that when he heads to Princeton University in New Jersey for his freshman year in September, all students, staff, and faculty will be fully vaccinated.

Gutierrez, who has pre-existing conditions and got vaccinated as soon as he was eligible in March, said that he would be upset if Princeton weren’t enforcing a mandate.

“I personally don’t feel like it should be controversial in any way,” Gutierrez told Al Jazeera, pointing out that colleges and universities already mandate vaccinations against diseases like chickenpox and meningitis.

The mandate also spares students from having to ask each other uncomfortable questions, he said.

“Socially, it’s awkward to go up to someone and ask if they’re vaccinated because people are new in college and I don’t know them,” Gutierrez explained.

With students living and learning in close quarters, many colleges and universities have imposed vaccine mandates while encouraging mask-wearing indoors [File: Emily Elconin/Bloomberg]

“Because we have a mandate, we’ll be able to actually have a more normal experience,” he said. “We actually have a lawn party scheduled in October. It will be nice to be able to go back to those experiences.”

Sophia Kianni also supports vaccine mandates. The sophomore will be transferring this semester to Stanford University in California, where all faculty, staff, postdoctoral scholars, and undergraduate, graduate and professional students are required to be vaccinated.

“It’s important for us as a community to keep each other safe and to create this bubble of low transmission, especially with the Delta variant,” Kianni told Al Jazeera, adding that she also thinks vaccination is important in preventing an influx of students from jeopardising the health of the local community, including immunocompromised people and small children.

Other universities, however, are waiting for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to grant final approval to coronavirus vaccines before imposing their mandate. Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine became the first to win FDA approval on August 23. Two other vaccines widely used in the US – made by Johnson & Johnson and Moderna – have not yet received FDA approval.

The University of Minnesota is among the institutions that waited for full FDA approval before requiring that all students be vaccinated. But because FDA approval only came in late August, it’s unlikely unvaccinated students will have time to receive both doses of the vaccine before school starts this semester.

Tyler Blackmon is an incoming juris doctor candidate at the University of Minnesota Law School this year. He supports the mandate, but is concerned about the logistics, which he describes as “not 100 percent ironed out yet”.

“One worry is that if there are tons of ways around it or if it’s not heavily enforced, then it doesn’t accomplish what we want and it could end up backfiring,” Blackmon told Al Jazeera. “The regents just approved the [mandate], but what does that mean in practice? Are we uploading vaccination cards or just attesting?”

“I really hope that, in addition to mandating it for students, that they extend it to faculty and staff as well,” he added.

A protester holds a sign that reads ‘No Jab’ at a demonstration opposing mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Olympia, Washington, where the state expanded its vaccine mandate to include all public, charter and private school teachers and staff, as well as those working at the state’s colleges and universities [File: Ted S Warren/AP Photo]

But not all students are in favour of mandates. Sara Razi, a junior at Rutgers University where other students filed a lawsuit against the mandate, feels it should be up to individuals to get the shot or not.

“I’m vaccinated, but it was a personal and private decision,” Razi told Al Jazeera, adding that she believes “the vaccine was politicised alongside the pandemic.”

Razi is the New Jersey state chair of Young Americans for Liberty, a conservative, libertarian student activism organisation, which held a rally to protest the mandate in May along with two other conservative groups, Turning Point USA at Rutgers and NJ Stands Up. She said about 600 people showed up at the protest.

Her opposition to the mandate comes in part from how the vaccine was rolled out, she said.

“The problem is [and] what makes this vaccination different than many others in the past is that it’s been politicised and been used as a bargaining tool and bribery in the state of New Jersey and the United States of America,” she said, referring to the state’s offer of free beer for residents in exchange for getting vaccinated in May.

Legal questions

Regardless of what students think or feel about their various schools’ approaches to vaccine mandates, however, the real question is what the law allows.

According to Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor of law at the University of California at Hastings and a member of the Vaccine Working Group on Ethics and Policy, there’s plenty of legal precedent for universities to order students to be vaccinated if they want to attend school.

“Vaccine mandates aren’t new,” Reiss told Al Jazeera. “Vaccine mandates have been challenged in court before and they’ve generally been upheld in the past. The court’s approach is usually that it’s the university’s job to provide a safe environment and they see vaccine mandates as fitting into that.”

There is uncertainty about whether vaccines that are still under emergency use authorisation can be required, and how universities will navigate the fact that only one of the three major COVID-19 vaccines in the US has received full authorisation so far.

For colleges and universities that waited for full authorisation from the US Food and Drug Administration before requiring vaccines for students, there could be a lag in getting campuses fully vaccinated this fall term [File: Rogelio V Solis/AP Photo]

“The question is: Can you mandate a vaccine that’s still under emergency use? It’s unanswered right now; we don’t know,” Reiss said.

There are, however, some loopholes to vaccine mandates as well.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act says that you have to accommodate students with a disability and that includes a medical reason not to vaccinate,” Reiss explained.

Then there are religious exemptions in which people claim their beliefs do not allow them to be vaccinated. Each university also has its own methods for processing and deciding on religious exemption requests.

“Some just ask you to tick a box, but they are going to require that you submit a letter about why you have a religious exemption to the vaccine,” Reiss said. “Generally, you need to convince the university that you have a personal religious objection, not just that you’re part of a religion.”

In the end, Reiss explains that religious exemptions often come down to convincing personal sincerity: “these are the lines and they’re hard to police.”

With those complexities at play, it remains to be seen whether colleges and universities will be able to ensure full vaccination after all.

Source: Al Jazeera