Universities must determine how they will bring faculty, staff, and students back to campus safely in the Fall due to the pandemic. This post will make the case for a vaccine mandate for everyone returning to campus.
Analysis and Assumptions
In March 2020, many higher education institutions sent students home and moved their courses online or to a hybrid of online and in-person learning because of COVID-19 (Hodges et al., 2020). This disruption in learning drastically impacted college admissions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of October 2020, just over 60% of high school graduates from the class of 2020 were enrolled in colleges or universities. This is the smallest share of high school graduates enrolling in college since 2001 and down four and a half percent from 2019. The gender gap also widened in 2020 for college students. The enrollment of male students was 59%, the lowest rate since 1993. Women did not fare much better, with an enrollment rate of 66%, the lowest since 2006 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).
The coronavirus has had a devastating economic impact on families. The high cost of a college education combined with the loss of household income during the pandemic has forced students to postpone or altogether abandon college enrollment. The economic impact is much higher for students of color, with 60 percent of Black and 59 percent of Hispanic juniors and seniors in college reporting that Covid affected their ability to pay. Only 45 percent of white teenagers said Covid impacted their ability to pay (Dickler, 2021). Many students did not feel virtual classes were worth the tuition costs. This feeling was made clear through the numerous student surveys that the university conducted throughout the pandemic.
There is a precedent for requiring vaccinations for infectious diseases for college students. This institution already requires students to have the following vaccines: Tetanus Diptheria within the past ten years, MMR, Varicella, three doses of Hepatitis B, Meningococcal vaccine, and an annual influence vaccine. There is an online portal in place, making it easy for students to upload their immunization history. A recent survey of 1,000 undergraduate students finds that 71 percent believe colleges can require students to get the Covid vaccine before returning to campus. Private school students are more likely than public school students to say schools have this right (College Pulse, 2021). Students' social media posts confirm that most agree the university should require Covid vaccines for students returning to campus.
Faculty and staff clearly articulated their concerns about safely reopening campus in the virtual town halls and open forums universities recently convened. The overwhelming majority felt the university should require vaccination against Covid for anyone working or learning on campus. A vaccine mandate is the only way to ensure the safety of everyone.
The availability of the vaccine is increasing, with all states currently offering the vaccine to everyone 16 years old and above. The expectation is that everyone over the age of 16 will have the opportunity to get a vaccine this summer. As of May 16, 2021, over 273 million vaccine doses have been administered in the United States (CDC, 2021).
A Covid vaccine is a crucial tool for making the coming fall semester safe. Colleges and universities struggled to control outbreaks on campus before the vaccine. An average of 3,000 new covid cases per day was added to the nation's total due to colleges reopening between July and September 2020. The outbreaks were driven by off-campus events and crowded dorms and directly impacted increased covid cases in the surrounding community (Gajewski, 2021). Even with a mask mandate and required social distancing, we cannot control what our students do 24/7, on or off-campus. Requiring the vaccine for all faculty, staff, and students returning to campus will add to the herd immunity of the country and ensure the safety of our campus and community.
Moral and Legal Consequences
There is significant legal precedence for universities to mandate immunizations. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Education have stated that higher education could require the COVID-19 vaccine for incoming students. The EEOC also made it clear that the vaccine is not considered a medical examination, which means it cannot be prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act (EEOC, 2021). According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, over 365 college campuses require the vaccine for incoming students and employees for the Fall. The list continues to grow each day. The major universities in our area including Georgetown University, Howard University, University of the District of Columbia, American University, and the University of Maryland system require returning students, faculty, and staff to be fully vaccinated.
The federal government is leaving vaccine laws up to the states. An anti-vaccine movement will challenge the vaccine mandate just as they have in the past with new vaccines. Several states have already moved to block any vaccine mandate for colleges. All states currently require colleges to accommodate students who refuse a vaccine for medical reasons, and some allow exemptions for religious reasons (Dennon, 2021). Some students may try to take advantage of the religious exemption because no proof is required. This number may be smaller than usual due to the high number of students approving colleges mandating the vaccine. The American Council on Education issued a brief stating requiring covid vaccines for students will likely be upheld as the availability of the vaccine increases (Hess, 2021).
There may be logistical difficulties that prevent students from accessing a vaccine in their home state. Universities should leverage their ability to provide on-campus vaccination through their current testing site, medical school and hospital if they can. Covid testing is widely available to faculty, staff, and students already on campus at most universities. Adding a vaccine component would be easy to do using the existing testing sites. A portal already exists at most universities to upload Covid vaccination information making it easy for universities to determine who has been vaccinated and who has not. The registrar's office can check a student's vaccination status before allowing them to register for in-person classes.
The CDC is also incentivizing the public to get the vaccine by rescinding the mask mandate for vaccinated individuals. Universities could do the same by offering pre-registration for classes to vaccinated students or entering vaccinated faculty and staff in a raffle.
Without a vaccine mandate, it will be challenging for universities to ensure the safety of students, faculty, and the community. The increase in covid cases on college campuses in 2020 as colleges tried to reopen proves that students will not willingly follow the guidelines to social distance and wear a mask.
The university is also bound by the rules of their local jurisdiction. Many jurisdictions have lifted the COVID-19 restrictions or will do so in the next few weeks. The lifting of these restrictions will make it more challenging to manage the health and safety of our community without a vaccine mandate.
Universities should require students, faculty, and staff who are in person in the Fall to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 before coming to campus. Any vaccine authorized for use in the United States will be accepted. Vaccines will be made available on-campus through the current or new Covid testing sites. Current students, faculty, and staff should upload their vaccination cards to the existing medical portal. Universities should grant limited exceptions for medical and religious reasons. These exceptions should be clearly articulated, so there is no confusion. Anyone with extenuating circumstances beyond their control that could cause a delay in vaccination should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
Social distancing and mask mandates should continue to be required in addition to the vaccine mandate in large group settings. These settings should be clearly identified, and the information available to everyone on campus. Testing for Covid-19 of all faculty, staff, and students on campus should continue indefinitely. Virtual instruction should be made available to students who cannot get a vaccine due to medical issues. Faculty, staff, or student who continues to work and learn remotely will not be required to obtain a Covid vaccine.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, (2021, April 27). College enrollment and work activity of recent high
school and college graduates – 2020 [Press Release]. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/hsgec.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021, May 16). Vaccines for covid-19.
College Pulse. (2021, January 27). 7 in 10 students believe colleges can require COVID-19
Dennon, A., (2021, April 21). Can colleges make the covid-19 vaccine mandatory?
Dickler, J., (2021, April 16). 25% of students postponed college during Covid, some indefinitely.
Gajewski, M., (2021, January 13). College campuses are covid-19 superspreaders, study says.
Hess, A.J., (2021, April 12). Many colleges will require the Covid vaccine-here are some of the
challenges ahead. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/12/colleges-will-require-the-covid-vaccinethese-are-the-challenges-ahead.html
Hodges, D., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, A. (2020). The difference between
emergency remote teaching and online learning. EDUCAUSE Review.
U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. (n.d.). Coronavirus and COVID-19.
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I am a higher education administrator with over 15 years of experience in communications and operations. The views in my blog are my own.