How Can Colleges Require COVID-19 Vaccines?

| Evan Thompson


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Have you had a COVID-19 vaccine? Depending on your answer, your school may or may not allow you on campus.

Colleges and universities in more than two dozen states will require students to be fully vaccinated when returning to campus in the fall. Schools such as Duke University, University of Notre Dame, and Syracuse University now include a COVID-19 vaccine alongside other typical vaccine requirements.

But mandating the vaccine remains controversial. While widespread vaccination is a critical tool for ending the pandemic and safely reopening schools for fully in-person learning, some people argue that requiring them violates individual rights.

Many schools are undecided on the matter, and others are encouraging students to get vaccinated rather than requiring it. However, some legal experts believe mandatory vaccines could become the norm as more and more students get vaccinated before the first day of class.

Can Colleges Require Students to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?

According to attorney Andrew Lacy, there's no question that colleges and universities can legally require students to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The main reason: legal precedence.

"I don't think this topic is really up for much debate legally," Lacy said. "Colleges have required vaccines in the past. There's just so very few types of exceptions that could actually be applied to someone getting out of taking the vaccine."

All states require vaccines for public school attendance. Students aren't allowed on most college campuses unless they get vaccinated against viruses such as Hepatitis B, human papillomavirus (HPV), and whooping cough.

Standard Vaccinations Required by Colleges

  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccine: Protects against meningococcal disease, a bacterial infection that can cause meningitis.
  • Hepatitis B immunization: Prevents a blood-borne infection that causes fever, debility, and jaundice.
  • Whooping cough vaccine booster (Tdap): Provides immunity against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough).
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine: A common virus spread through sexual activity that can cause cervical, penile, anal, throat, or oral cancer.

The purpose of these vaccines is to protect public health. Legally, a COVID-19 vaccine is no different, said Seth Price, founding partner of Price Benowitz LLP, a law firm.

"With all those vaccination requirements already at play, colleges have the right to require the COVID-19 vaccine," Price said. "There will need to be exceptions allowed, but generally speaking, they are allowed to require vaccines as a way to protect public safety."

While taking the vaccine is still hotly debated on both sides of the political spectrum, Lacy believes that the controversy about requiring vaccines will eventually subside.

"By the time September comes, people are not going to remember a time when people were walking around without vaccines for the most part," Lacy said. "It might turn into being a nonissue, and then it will be seen as some other vaccine."

Why Do Students Need to Get Vaccinated?

Getting vaccinated is the quickest and safest way for colleges to return to normal. There's no other way for the typical college experience – in-person classes, living in residence halls, and socializing – to come back.

If most students don't get the vaccine, college campuses will continue to be potential COVID-19 hotspots. These hotspots not only disrupt college life, but also make the pandemic worse: A study in December found that campus outbreaks often spread into neighboring communities, causing spikes of infections.

From a public health standpoint, vaccinations are also the key to reaching herd immunity and slowing the pandemic. When enough people are immune to a disease, spread becomes less likely. Herd immunity makes diseases rarer, saves lives, and protects vulnerable people who can't get vaccinated due to health conditions or disabilities.

Herd Immunity

Herd immunity is when most of the population becomes immune to a specific disease, making it unlikely for it to spread from person to person.

It's unknown how many people in the U.S. must be vaccinated against COVID-19 to reach herd immunity, but levels of herd immunity needed for other diseases provide some clues.

Disease Transmission Herd Immunity Threshold
Measles Airborne 95%
Diphtheria Saliva 85%
Rubella Airborne droplet 87%
COVID-19 Airborne >70%

It's unknown how many people need to be immune from COVID-19 for the pandemic to wane, but early estimates ranged between 70% and 85%. However, public health experts are now saying the herd immunity threshold is unattainable, and the virus will become a manageable threat that will circulate for years, much like the flu.

What Do Students Think?

Many colleges and universities are on board with requiring students to take the COVID-19 vaccines. But do students agree with that?

According to a recent survey of 1,000 college students by College Pulse, 7 in 10 students believe colleges have the right to require students to get vaccinated before coming to campus.

Do College Students Support Requiring COVID-19 Vaccines?

Cormac Thorpe, an incoming first-year student at Yale University who took a gap year in 2020, favors requiring vaccines because public schools already mandate immunization for other diseases.

"Colleges requiring a COVID vaccine would show they're as serious about getting back to more normal college life as they've claimed to be," Thorpe said in an email. "They've already taken large safety measures to combat the spread of the virus throughout the past year, and with vaccines being incredibly safe and well-tested, it is the obvious measure to ensure everyone's safety."

Tyler Newman, an incoming first-year student at Stanford University, also supports requiring the vaccine.

"The influx of students traveling from many different regions to attend school poses a safety hazard if precautions aren't taken," Newman wrote in an email. "Having all students fully vaccinated helps to keep university staff, faculty, students, and residents of the towns and cities in which the university resides safe."

Who Will Be Exempt from Vaccines?

Students who refuse to be vaccinated will have to make a legitimate case for exemption. But the arguments for exemption are limited, Lacy said.

Lacy expects there to be only two possible types of exemptions: medical conditions and religious objections. Both have strong legal backing, he said.

"Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the First Amendment, there are exceptions for people with disabilities and people with certain types of religious practices," Lacy said. "So for example, someone could argue that their religion does not allow for the taking of vaccines, and that would be a legitimate argument."

State Vaccine Exemptions

Each state has different rules for vaccine exemptions. All 50 states allow immunization exemptions for medical conditions, while 45 allow religious exemptions. Only 15 states allow philosophical objections to vaccines.

The states that don't allow religious exemptions are California, Maine, Mississippi, New York, and West Virginia.

Those are also the only two vaccine exemptions granted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that oversees civil rights laws in the workplace.

Lacy said other possible claims, such as philosophical objections, won't hold up due to undue hardship rules: Not administering the vaccine to everyone would be an undue hardship for schools because unvaccinated students would pose a threat to the workplace, Lacy said.

"That exception that people might use to get out of taking the vaccine doesn't apply," Lacy said. "Only two classes of people — those with disabilities and religious exceptions — have a potential argument to get out of taking the vaccine."

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: Cavan Images, FreshSplash | Getty Images

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