It is increasingly likely that students returning to college campuses in the fall will be required to get the Covid-19 vaccine.
In just the last few days, California State University and the University of California announced that all students, staff and faculty who plan to be on campus must be vaccinated against Covid — a move that will impact more than 1 million people.
Across the country, a growing number of other colleges and universities have also said vaccinations will be mandatory for the fall of 2021, including Yale University, Georgetown University, Stanford University, Wesleyan University, Grinnell College, Bowdoin College, George Washington University, American University, Emory University, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, College of the Atlantic in Maine, Seattle University, Vassar College, Manhattanville College, Fairleigh Dickinson University and Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
They join a host of other schools that made similar announcements, including Duke University; Brown University; Northeastern University; the University of Notre Dame; Syracuse University; Ithaca College; Cornell University; Rutgers University; DePaul University and Columbia College in Chicago; Nova Southeastern University; Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island; Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado; and St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.
Even more institutions are likely to follow, according to Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Across the country, campuses struggled to remain open over the last year as fraternities, sororities and off-campus parties drove sudden spikes in coronavirus cases among undergraduates. Meanwhile, students overwhelmingly declared remote school a mediocre substitute for being in the classroom.
As eligibility and access for Covid vaccines expands, schools must consider how a vaccine mandate can help higher education get back on track, Pasquerella said.
For those enrolled in school, there are many vaccination requirements already in place to prevent the spread of diseases such as polio, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.
All 50 states have at least some vaccine mandates for children attending public schools and even those attending private schools and day-care centers. In every case, there are medical exemptions, and in some cases there are religious or philosophical exemptions, as well.
“Adding Covid-19 vaccination to our student immunization requirements will help provide a safer and more robust college experience for our students,” Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway said in a statement.
In most cases, students can request an exemption from vaccination for medical or religious reasons and students enrolled in fully remote programs will not be required to be vaccinated.
And yet, vaccine hesitancy remains a powerful force among parents, in particular.
Only 58% of parents or caregivers said they would vaccinate their children against Covid, despite 70% of parents saying they would vaccinate themselves, according to a March poll by ParentsTogether, a national advocacy group.
Low-income and minority households were even less likely to vaccinate their children, ParentsTogether found.
Other studies have shown Black and Latino people to be more skeptical of the vaccines than the overall U.S. population due to historic mistreatment in medicine. Disparities along racial lines in vaccine distribution also have been observed in the U.S.
“Colleges do need to get ahead of this and think about how this is going to play out,” said Bethany Robertson, co-founder and co-director of ParentsTogether.
“We need to start the conversation with parents now, to build trust and understanding about how getting kids vaccinated against Covid-19 protects their health, their family’s health and the health of our communities,” Robertson said.
However, in addition to students, parents and community members, schools must also weigh the interests of the faculty, staff, legislators and boards of trustees, Pasquerella said.
“It’s complicated,” she said. “No matter what decision one makes, one group will ultimately be displeased.”