Take the Shot: Universities Can and Should Mandate COVID-19 Vaccines Come Fall

by Andreas Psahos

What You Can Do

As of Apr. 5, over a quarter of the United States population has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and 40 percent have received their first dose [1] — promising data points that, for the most part, point to a light at the end of the tunnel for universities to phase out remote learning come fall. However, 12 institutions and counting have taken the extra step of mandating vaccinations for all community members to ensure their campuses achieve herd immunity by next semester, exempting those with religious or medical concerns [2]. These trendsetting colleges, which include upstate New York schools such as Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Syracuse University, aim to have students out of eye-straining Zoom rooms and into non-socially distant lecture halls by Fall 2021 [2]. 

On the other side of the argument, institutions have announced their lack of a requirement for COVID-19 vaccinations. Schools like the University of California, San Diego, and Dickinson State University are offering carrots, not sticks, for students returning to campus, allowing those with the vaccine to be exempted from regular testing or the mask mandate [3, 4]. Dartmouth College and others are holding out on a mandate until vaccines are reliably accessible for all students [5]. To further complicate the picture in upstate New York, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras said in an Apr. 9 press conference that the state university system will not be implementing a mandate on COVID-19 vaccinations, given that students are still getting vaccinated [6]. But what is the threshold for an acceptable vaccination rate among students, and is leaving such a giant if-statement in the hands of individual students and professors an ethical and appropriate method of reopening?

If universities across the country are hoping to reopen and provide high-quality, uninterrupted in-person education for the population of nearly 20 million college students in the United States, they all must move to mandate vaccinations as a coalition. Division among colleges has contributed to the vaccine persisting as a political football in the media and has also led to situations like that in Florida, where Nova Southeastern University’s plan to require vaccinations was shuttered by a same-day retaliatory order by Gov. DeSantis banning proof of vaccination in the state [7]. Once universities move as a unit in mandating vaccinations for their student populations, vulnerable college towns will be able to breathe a sigh of relief instead of bracing for deadly fall semester outbreaks. Furthermore, once the FDA provides the current COVID-19 vaccines with approval for regular use (which can come as early as this summer), there will be no legal hurdles for universities to mandate that students show legitimate proof of vaccination before appearing on campus next fall [8]. To prevent a catastrophic return to in-person higher education and resist political backlash against individual institutions, private and public universities in the country should make use of their constitutional power to mandate vaccinations across the board.  

It is an understatement to say that college towns have been COVID-19 hotspots since the very beginning of the pandemic, and outbreaks on campus have been linked to introducing new variants into communities and causing upticks in deaths in nearby nursing homes. As of December 2020, over 397,000 COVID-19 cases and 90 deaths occurred in over 1,800 American colleges [9]. Studies have shown that reopening college campuses for in-person instruction from July to September 2020 led to an increase of 3,000 cases per day due to on-campus exposure and out-of-state migration to college campuses, which hit neighboring communities hard [10]. Furthermore, using genome sequencing, researchers were able to determine a link between outbreaks on campus in La Crosse County, Wisconsin, and increased infection rates in nursing homes; ultimately, 33 deaths in nursing homes could be attributed to COVID-19 circulating in on-campus communities [11]. COVID-19 poses a serious threat to both on- and off-campus communities, and a lenient approach to student vaccinations will do nothing but lead to a wave of new cases among vulnerable college town populations once students migrate back to their universities. 

Ironically, reducing outbreaks on campuses is as urgent of a crisis as returning to in-person instruction. Remote learning reduces opportunities for social interactions of all types and physical fitness, which are not only necessary for a well-rounded college lifestyle but are key determinants in declines in mental health. Furthermore, in-person learning will improve the standards of higher education from taking exams asynchronously — standards that many universities are dying to reinstate. Students are cheating at record levels and in unique, hard-to-track ways [12]; Answers posted to Chegg’s homework help for five different STEM subjects between April and August 2020 were at 196 percent of their typical volume according to a study at the Imperial College London, and students have been resorting to virtual group chats and hiring others to take their exams to get ahead of the curve due to the lack of in-person proctoring [12]. Besides academic integrity, remote learning has also taken its toll on the broader workforce; over half of displaced workers in the U.S. have said they are unable to attain their desired level of education or training due to pandemic restrictions [13]. If universities were able to create COVID-free bubbles on campus through vaccination mandates, they would be able to support these workers in attaining professional degrees and certifications. Furthermore, a vaccination mandate might be necessary for in-person learning to resume — a poll conducted by the New Mexico chapter of the National Education Association found that 59 percent of educators in the state strongly believe that most or all students should be vaccinated before returning to in-person learning [14]. 

The legal argument against a vaccine mandate is weakened by countless precedents in higher education of mandating both regular use and emergency use authorization (EUA) vaccines. Vaccinations have regularly been mandated by institutions of higher ed, and a California court also upheld a flu shot requirement in the University of California school system just last year [15]. However, anti-vaccination groups have maintained that EUA vaccinations are separate and unable to be mandated — ironically, UC law professor Dorit Rubenstein Reiss argued in MarketWatch, “For years, the FDA took the position that a EUA product cannot be mandated, this is not a new position, they’ve held it for years” [16]. The U.S. government has also authorized EUA anthrax vaccines for American servicemen, but legal scholars disagree as to whether that may translate to a center for higher education [16]. The disagreement among legal scholars is derived from one of the statutes that allow for EUA, stating that those who receive a vaccination authorized under the EUA must also be told of their right to refuse it [16]. However, while Reiss is adamant on how clear this wording is, she does not believe it necessarily precludes colleges from requiring vaccinations. She wrote in a blog post for the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School that U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission guidance in Dec. 2020 “strongly implies” that employers may mandate the various COVID-19 vaccines for their employees and consider them as being regular use vaccinations [16, 17]. Furthermore, the general counsels at various schools that have already endorsed mandated vaccinations claim that mandates for vaccinations claim that the school-student relationship is much more exhaustive and intrusive than an employee-worker relationship, so educational institutions are on even better footing to introduce a mandated COVID-19 vaccination policy.

Ultimately, requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for students across institutions will reduce the risk of the worst-case scenario if schools were to open prematurely — in-person instruction would be halted abruptly as a new COVID-19 wave ripple past the campus into vulnerable communities of the surrounding college towns, causing much more than a minor inconvenience.

Whether malicious or not, the overhanging punishment of ripping students from their social lives for a two-week quarantine is not enough to reduce cases to an “acceptable” level. Universities both have applicable precedents and strong legal footing to require vaccinations, so it is within their best interest to collaborate in mandating that students without qualifying medical and religious exemptions should do their best to ensure they do not endanger the communities surrounding large college campuses. As mentioned before, some colleges have resorted to positive incentives for vaccinated students, exempting them from mask-wearing or regular testing. However, being vaccinated is not something that you wear on your sleeve (as dystopian as that thought might potentially sound) and it is impossible to determine whether someone is meant to be wearing their mask or not. That is to say, it is difficult to apply different standards to different students depending on vaccination status. For the health of campus communities, the towns that surround them, and a fulfilling in-person instructional experience, schools must say with certainty that their population is safe from COVID, and, as such, ready to learn. 


[1] https://www.contagionlive.com/view/25-of-americans-are-now-fully-vaccinated-40-have-received-1-dose

[2] https://www.kcci.com/article/us-colleges-divided-over-requiring-student-vaccinations/36090360

[3] https://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/pressrelease/uc-san-diego-plans-to-significantly-increase-campus-density-in-fall-2021

[4] https://dickinsonstatenews.com/dsu-incentivizes-covid-19-vaccine-intends-to-remove-mask-mandate-for-fall-semester/ 

[5] https://apnews.com/article/us-colleges-divided-student-coronavirus-vaccination-8c46ab65afc4538cb060c320ed94fc54

[6] https://wbng.com/2021/04/09/suny-chancellor-vaccines-will-not-be-mandatory-for-students/ 

[7] https://apnews.com/article/fort-myers-miami-orlando-fort-lauderdale-florida-d2f3bc41dd70f812bdd5becea2bcfbbd 

[8] https://www.npr.org/2021/04/11/984787779/should-colleges-require-covid-19-vaccines-for-fall-more-campuses-are-saying-yes 

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/covid-college-cases-tracker.html 

[10] https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.09.22.20196048v1

[11] https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.10.12.20210294v1.article-info 

[12] https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/21/how-college-students-learned-new-ways-to-cheat-during-covid-.html 

Photo credit: https://khn.org/news/article/covid-vaccines-appear-safe-and-effective-but-key-questions-remain/