Colleges want students to get a coronavirus vaccine. But they’re split on requiring the shots.
"Indiana University, a flagship institution in a staunchly Republican state, will require its more than 100,000 students and employees to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus as it turns the page on a strange pandemic school year. “This is saving lives, it’s as simple as that,” said university President Michael A. McRobbie. “And it will enable us to have a normal fall semester.”
Purdue University, also prominent in Indiana, is strongly encouraging vaccination for students and employees but avoiding mandates. A campaign for personal choice and responsibility, Purdue President Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. said, will get better public health results than requirements that “might come across as ham-handed and dictatorial.”
Two public universities, two divergent approaches, one race to a common goal: Maximize vaccination before college students return for the fall. Colleges and universities everywhere face daunting challenges, logistical and political, as they try to create safe campus spaces for living and learning in a nation weary of the coronavirus and divided over masks and vaccines.
Schools surmounted crises of the past year through a combination of tactics: Remote teaching, mask mandates, frequent viral testing, outdoor tents, quarantine and isolation bedrooms, plastic barriers in lecture halls and more.
Now, even as the covid-19 death toll passes 600,000 in the United States, the pandemic threat appears to be easing, especially in places with high vaccination rates. But maintaining public health on packed campuses with sizable shares of unvaccinated students and employees could prove difficult. Colleges may need to keep asking students to swab inside their noses or spit in test tubes to check for resurgence of the virus or the spread of variants.
Universities mandating vaccines are mostly on the East Coast
Percentage of two- and four-year colleges and universities that are requiring students to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“Because we expect to see more students on campus, in closer contact with others … we can’t be complacent about it,” said Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the covid-19 task force of the American College Health Association. “Colleges are really going to have to be watching for cases and watching with their dashboards to see, ‘Are numbers going up?’ They need plans in place to pivot if they need to.”
To avoid a reprise of pandemic disruptions, educators are pushing as hard as possible in the next several weeks for mass inoculation. The health association recommends colleges require vaccination of on-campus students where state law allows.
Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., is offering incentives to students to encourage them to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. (AJ Mast for The Washington Post)
“I think all colleges would like to go back to business as usual, provide a college experience that students missed out on last year and desperately wanted,” Taylor said. “I think their best chance for that is to provide a high level of immunization on campus, however they do that.”
Purdue is pushing incentives. Students who document their coronavirus shots by July 15 will be eligible for a lottery-style drawing to receive a prize of $9,992, worth a year of in-state tuition. They can also skip surveillance testing for the virus, and they may enjoy what officials describe as “greater amounts of choice” with campus activities. What that extra choice means is still to be determined.
Indiana University officials say their mandate will facilitate equal treatment of students, effectively making moot questions about who’s vaccinated and who’s not. Officials say they don’t want to police the vaccine status of individuals as they move about campus. The university will simply require students to “attest” that they have been vaccinated, with exemptions available for medical and religious reasons and for online-only students. It is urging, but not requiring, students to upload immunization documents.
But on Monday, several students filed a federal lawsuit against Indiana University, arguing that the mandate violates their constitutional rights and the state’s law banning “vaccine passports.” They said the exemptions allowed by the school are extremely limited and claim the school threatens draconian measures even as other institutions loosen coronavirus restrictions. “This is extreme and unjustified,” attorney James Bopp Jr., a graduate of IU, told The Washington Post.
Chuck Carney, a spokesman for Indiana University, said in a written statement that the requirement remains in place, helping to support a return to safe and more normal operations in the fall. The university revised its process after the Indiana attorney general issued an opinion, Carney noted, and it no longer requires people upload proof of vaccination. “The attorney general’s opinion affirmed our right to require the vaccine,” he said.
McRobbie said there’s “a good chance” that 80 percent of the university population will be vaccinated against the coronavirus by the end of this month, and he expects the total to continue climbing. Shots will be available on campus for international students or others who may not be fully vaccinated when they arrive. “We can take care of it,” he said.
More than 500 colleges and universities plan to require coronavirus vaccination for at least some of their students and employees, according to data as of Tuesday from the Chronicle of Higher Education. They include the entire Ivy League; public university systems in Maryland, California and New York; and most of the U.S. News & World Report lists of the top 50 national universities and liberal arts colleges. The vast majority of vaccine-mandate schools are in states President Biden carried in last year’s election, reflecting a deep red-blue divide. Some mandates only apply to students in campus housing.
For public universities, most vaccine mandates are in Democratic-run states. Not so for private universities.
Universities that are requiring students to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Control of state government
58,281 enrolled students
University of Maryland Global Campus
George Mason University
San Jose State University
San Diego State University
James Madison University
University of Maryland College Park
Indiana University Bloomington
Rutgers University New Brunswick
University of Colorado Boulder
Oregon State University
University of Michigan
University of Southern California
Loyola University Chicago
Rochester Institute of Technology
Johns Hopkins University
University of Pennsylvania
University of Notre Dame
Southern New Hampshire University
Most SNHU students attend online, but on-campus students must be vaccinated.
Note: The Cal State system and the University of Vermont mandates are contingent upon full Food and Drug Administration approval of a coronavirus vaccine.
Decisions about vaccine requirements are shot through with politics. In emails obtained through public record requests, officials at public universities in Republican-led states acknowledge the sensitivity of the issue.
After the private University of Notre Dame in Indiana adopted a mandate in April, Daniel J. Pugh Sr., then vice president for student affairs at Texas A&M University, wrote in an email: “You could move Notre Dame to Texas … that might reverse your decision.” Asked to elaborate, Pugh told The Post he was no longer serving in that position and declined to comment.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has issued an order barring state agencies, including public universities, from requiring proof of coronavirus vaccination. So have other Republican governors, including Brian Kemp of Georgia. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) on June 15 ordered public universities not to mandate vaccination of students.
At Georgia State University, one official mused on the hurdles of mounting a public-health campaign for vaccination without a vaccine mandate from the University System of Georgia.
“While we can work to move the needle with communication and likely can, it is more definitely more challenging without requirements and mandates,” Andrea Jones, associate vice president for public relations and marketing, wrote in an email to Georgia State colleagues in March. “If the USG were to require students to be vaccinated for the fall, our comms efforts would be a lot easier.”
A spokesman for the Georgia system pointed to Kemp’s order, telling The Post that the university encourages faculty, staff members, students and visitors to get vaccinated, but it is an “individual decision … and will not be required to be a part of our campuses.”
At Ohio State University, another public flagship in a Republican-led state, there is no vaccine mandate. But there will be pop-up vaccination clinics in dormitories and perhaps vaccine-incentive raffles of free football tickets. “We decided together that we’re going to look at this not through a political lens, we’re going to look at it through a public health lens,” said Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson. “Our approach to this is going to be to encourage vaccination, strongly encourage vaccination.”
The University System of Maryland adopted a vaccine mandate in April for all students and employees. Making it work at Frostburg State University in western Maryland could be a challenge. The school battled viral surges in October and November, and vaccination rates in that rural part of the state are lower than elsewhere in Maryland.
“We’ve had a couple families that have said they are bothered by the requirements,” said Ronald Nowaczyk, president of Frostburg State. He added that he’s willing to help those families find a different school. “My main concern is making sure the campus is safe.”
Nowaczyk said he is optimistic most of the campus will be inoculated when the semester starts. About 60 percent of faculty and staff so far have reported receiving at least one coronavirus vaccine dose. The president did not say how many students have received shots. The deadline for students to show proof of vaccination is Aug. 1. “We expect to be in compliance,” Nowaczyk said.
At Morgan State University in Baltimore, the vaccine mandate has not been controversial. Uttam Gaulee, chairman of the University Council and a professor of education, said there are more people asking about how to get a shot than expressing hesitance. Some ask about exemptions, he said, and about what kind of evidence they might be asked to provide.
Gaulee said he would not be surprised if a small number resist. But the school’s president got vaccinated, and a vaccination center was established on the campus of the historically Black university. “People have a lot of trust in the institution,” Gaulee said. “That has helped people overcome their anxiety and come to get vaccinated.”
At Florida A&M University, another historically Black school, officials are relying on the power of persuasion to get students vaccinated. Larry Robinson, the president, said policies in the Republican-led state preclude a mandate. “That’s something we’re not able to do as a public entity here in the state of Florida,” he said. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has taken aim at vaccine passports through an executive order barring state agencies from requiring proof of vaccination and by signing legislation seeking to restrict such mandates.
Robinson and other HBCU leaders have sought for months to promote vaccines. Inadequate access to health care and income disparities, among other factors, have heightened the covid risks for Black Americans.
“The absence of the vaccine, or lack of vaccine, has the greatest impact on our communities,” Robinson said. “We don’t need to have anybody else that we know and care about added to that 600,000 people that have succumbed to that virus in the worst possible way.”
Robinson is making on-campus shots as convenient as possible. He also publicized his vaccination on social media, seeking to inspire others to do the same.
“We have the solution right here in front of us,” he said. “We just need to get more people to take advantage of it.”
The Chronicle list, as of Tuesday, showed only one school in Florida requires students to get vaccinated: the private Johnson & Wales University campus in North Miami.
At the private University of Miami, faculty and staff are required to get vaccinated and students are strongly encouraged to do so. That is an unusual policy. The reverse is much more common, with schools mandating vaccination of students but not employees.
The Miami guidance says students who are fully vaccinated and provide proof of their shots will be exempt from twice-weekly viral testing. Others will have to submit to the testing and face potential discipline if they skip it. Many schools around the country are banking on this strategy. They figure students would rather get vaccinated and avoid the hassle of frequent nasal swabs.
One private liberal arts college in Tennessee, another state with few vaccine mandates, is going a step further. Rhodes College will require viral testing for unvaccinated students and charge them $1,500 per semester to cover the costs of the public health surveillance.
“We think we will see a lot of students voluntarily vaccinated,” said Meghan Harte Weyant, vice president for student life at the college in Memphis. She said the fee is not meant to be punitive. But it might spur some holdouts to get shots. “There may be some students who maybe weren’t sure or kind of apathetic on the topic,” Harte Weyant said. “This might encourage them to do that.”
Rhodes plans to require vaccination if the Food and Drug Administration gives full approval to a coronavirus vaccine. As of now, the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are being administered in the United States under emergency use authorization from the FDA. Colleges around the country are closely watching for further federal action. Full approval of one or more vaccines, possible at some point in coming months, would be a game-changer.
In April, the University of California and California State University indicated that they plan to require vaccination, contingent on full FDA approval of a vaccine. Those two systems, each with hundreds of thousands of students, have national influence. In recent days, UC officials removed the caveat and said their system would move forward, if necessary, with vaccines that have emergency use authorization.
Guy Nicolette, assistant vice chancellor for university health at UC Berkeley, pointed out that the school, like others nationwide, has long required vaccination against diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella. “If you look at the statistics,” he said, “it’s staggering how well a mandate works on a college campus.”
Cal State, the largest public four-year system in the country, wants to implement a vaccine mandate, but it is still waiting for full approval of a coronavirus vaccine as it prepares to start the school year in August. “We decided this was the best approach,” said Joseph I. Castro, the system’s chancellor. And if the FDA doesn’t act before classes resume? “We will develop a plan in the event that occurs,” Castro said on June 14. “I can’t tell you what that is today.”
Castro added: “We’ve been working very hard to encourage and inspire our students to get vaccinated along with faculty and staff. We’re going to continue that push all the way through the summer.”