BOSTON (AP) – U.S. colleges hoping for a return to normalcy next fall are weighing how far they should go in urging students to get the COVID-19 vaccine, including whether they should or legally can _ require it.
Universities including Rutgers, Brown, Cornell and Northeastern recently told students they must get vaccinated before returning to campus next fall. They hope to achieve herd immunity on campus, which they say would allow them to loosen spacing restrictions in classrooms and dorms.
But some colleges are leaving the decision to students, and others believe they can’t legally require vaccinations. At Virginia Tech, ofﬁcials determined that they can’t because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only allowed the emergency use of the vaccines and hasn’t given them its full approval.
The question looms large as more colleges plan to shift back from remote to in-person instruction. Many schools have launched vaccination blitzes to get students immunized before they leave for the summer. At some schools, the added requirement is meant to encourage holdouts and to build conﬁdence that students and faculty will be safe on campus.
“It takes away any ambiguity about whether individuals should be vaccinated,” said Kenneth Henderson, the chancellor of Northeastern University in Boston. “It also provides a level of conﬁdence for the entire community that we are taking all appropriate measures.” Northeastern and other colleges requiring shots believe they’re on solid legal ground. It’s not unusual for colleges to require students to be vaccinated for other types of diseases, and a California court last year upheld a flu shot requirement at the University of California system.
But legal scholars say the COVID-19 vaccines’ emergency use status moves the issue to a legal gray area that’s likely to be challenged in court, and some colleges may take a more cautious approach to avoid litigation.
Harvard Law professor Glenn Cohen, who teaches health law and bioethics, said there’s no legal reason colleges wouldn’t be allowed to require COVID19 vaccinations. It makes no difference that the shots haven’t been given full approval, he said, noting that many colleges already require students to take coronavirus tests that are approved under the same FDA emergency authorization. But there’s also no federal guidance explicitly permitting vaccination mandates.
The biggest clashes could come in states taking a stance against vaccination requirements, he said.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis this month banned all businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination. The order raises questions about Nova Southeastern University’s plan to require students and staff to get vaccinated. The college’s president said he’s still conﬁdent in the plan, but he also promised to “respect the laws of our state and all federal directives.” The governor of Texas, the country’s second-largest state, issued a similar order.
There’s a parallel debate about whether to require vaccination for faculty and staff, an issue that employers across the nation are grappling with. At the University of Notre Dame, one of the latest schools to require student vaccinations, shots are still optional for workers. Northeastern is considering whether to extend its mandate to employees.
Even at schools making shots mandatory, there are exemptions. Federal law requires colleges to provide accommodations to students who refuse a vaccine for medical reasons, and most schools are also offering exemptions for religious reasons.
At Brown, students who forgo shots and have no valid exemption must ﬁle a petition to study remotely or take a leave of absence next fall, the school’s president, Christina Paxson, told students in a letter last week.
But enforcing vaccine mandates will bring its own challenges. Cornell and Northeastern say students will be asked to show proof of vaccination, but there is no widely accepted vaccine credential. Cornell told students they can provide the card given out at their vaccination site, but card formats vary and generally seem like they would be easy to forge. At Northeastern, ofﬁcials are still deciding whether students will have to provide a medical record proving they were vaccinated or whether they will be allowed to attest to having been immunized essentially taking their word for it.
“We would expect students to be honest and forthright about any attestation they make to the university,” Henderson said.