Higher education institutions are increasingly requiring students to get vaccinated against COVID-19, arguing it’s necessary to keep school communities safe and restore campus life this fall.
In recent weeks, Boston University, Northeastern, Lasell, Brown, Rutgers, and Notre Dame, among others, have announced vaccine requirements for students, with exemptions for religious or medical reasons. More are likely to follow.
“Our goal is to move to a ‘new normal’ in the fall that includes only minimal social distancing, where all our facilities are open, students can move freely between residences, and guests are welcome,” Boston University president Bob Brown told students and parents in a letter this month. “The key to achieving this state will be vaccination of nearly everyone in our community, especially our students.”
But while vaccine mandates could ease student and parent worries about returning to campus and appeal to those eager for a semblance of normalcy, they also could prompt legal challenges. In addition, they risk alienating students and families who object to the mandates, experts said.
In conservative-leaning states, including Texas and Florida, lawmakers are pushing back and banning vaccine mandates, putting colleges at the center of a political battle over whether businesses and institutions can require immunizations for entry into everyday spaces, from ballparks to classrooms.
Meanwhile, after a pandemic that has eroded enrollment and battered bottom lines, some colleges are treading carefully on the vaccine mandate front to avoid missteps that could cost them financially.
So far about 50 colleges nationwide are requiring students to get vaccinated before they come to campus this fall, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a trade publication tracking the policies. Colleges haven’t yet extended this requirement to faculty and staff, but many said they are studying the issue and strongly encouraging employees to get immunized.
“Any school that fails to make this a requirement is compromising the safety of its students, its faculty, and staff, and the members of its surrounding community,” said A. David Paltiel, a professor of health policy and management at Yale University. “This is going to be the norm.”
Many colleges say requiring students to get inoculated against COVID mirrors current policies that ask students to submit proof they’ve been immunized against measles, mumps, chicken pox, or meningitis.
In Massachusetts, most colleges require students to be vaccinated against these diseases, and most students follow the rules without objection; just half a percent of students received religious or medical exemptions for immunizations in the 2019-2020 school year, according to state public health data.
“The COVID-19 vaccine will be no different than any of the other vaccinations we require,” said Ian Meropol, a spokesman for Lasell University, which notified students that they would need to get their COVID shot before they would be allowed to live or take classes on the Newton campus.
But vaccination rates vary across campuses, with lower numbers at some religious schools and community colleges. At a handful of community colleges, including Holyoke Community College and Massasoit Community College in Brockton, half or fewer of the students surveyed in 2019-2020 were vaccinated against mumps, measles, and rubella.
Legal experts say COVID vaccines are in a slightly different category because they are so new and disagree over how much authority colleges have to require the shots.
Lars Noah, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law who specializes in Food and Drug Administration regulation, noted that the FDA hasn’t yet given full approval for the COVID shots.
The FDA has currently authorized three COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use for the entire population, although it has paused the use of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine for further study. The vaccines aren’t yet fully licensed, although some health care experts believe that could happen as early as this summer.
Under federal statutes, consumers who take products authorized under emergency use must be able to give their consent and can’t be forced to participate, Noah said.
“If the COVID vaccines got full FDA approval, I have no problem with them being required,” Noah said. “These vaccines are in the middle ground.”
But colleges are eager to bring back students safely after losing millions of dollars on dorm revenues and other fees, and vaccines mandates offer a solution, Noah said.
“It’s the urgency to get back fully to business,” he said. “They’re thinking, ‘If we can get nearly universal vaccination, we can open the doors.”
Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law, believes colleges do have the right to mandate the COVID vaccine at this stage of its approval, just as they’ve been able to mandate older vaccines. But she thinks many won’t go that far, resulting in a patchwork approach this fall. Institutional decisions likely will depend on the political climate of the state, she said.
“States that have higher rates of COVID-19 and institutions that have had to close or seen outbreaks would be more likely to mandate,” Reiss said. “States where the legislature or governor has already expressed some hostility to mandates … may see less mandates, since universities will be concerned about a legislative or executive reaction stopping them.”
In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott earlier this month banned state agencies and political organizations that receive public funds from creating vaccine passports or requiring proof of vaccinations in order to receive services. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also issued an executive order outlawing vaccine passports and barring businesses from requiring proof of inoculation, which forced one private college in the state to ditch its plans for a vaccine mandate.
In Massachusetts, some colleges are hoping that state lawmakers will mandate the vaccine, allowing campus leaders to avoid any blowback.
Requiring COVID vaccines, however, could dissuade a small but vocal group of students from enrolling in a college, said Matt Maguire, vice president of client services and product development at Maguire Associates.
The Concord-based educational consulting firm recently surveyed nearly 21,500 students and their parents nationally and found that a vast majority were supportive of the vaccine, especially wealthier families and those living in the Northeast and West, but that 7 percent had some discomfort with it, Maguire said.
For some schools struggling to fill their admissions slots, turning off 7 percent of students with a vaccine mandate could have serious financial consequences, said Maguire, adding that those institutions may want to look at other ways to encourage or incentivize vaccinations.
And while vaccine hesitancy among Black and Hispanic students is decreasing, colleges will have to address that reluctance as they prepare to reopen, Maguire said.
It is unclear how universities adopting mandates will enforce them, or whether they will provide other options to students who don’t get vaccinated, such as online classes or limited access to campus. Several colleges said they will work with their international students to ensure that they are vaccinated before they come to campus.
“Students want to learn at a 2019 level of normalcy,” Maguire said, “but disagree how to get there.”