Debate over universities mandating COVID-19 vaccination for students in the fall

Lelia Durand, Staff Reporter

As some countries lift travel restrictions and waive quarantine and testing mandates for travelers with proof of COVID-19 vaccination, “vaccine passports,” proof through a phone app or a piece of paper that you have been vaccinated, have become a hot-button topic. 

Supporters argue they could help the world get back to normal quicker and that they are similar to other safety mechanisms used by schools and for overseas travel. Opponents highlight government overreach, as well as privacy and data security concerns. 

Both Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued executive orders in early April, emphasizing that an individual’s COVID-19 vaccination status is private health information, banning any governmental entity from mandating a “vaccine passport” for COVID-19 and blocking businesses from requiring such documentation. 

Additional concerns include potential discrimination against groups for whom the vaccination rate is slower, including people from ethnic minority backgrounds and lower socio-economic groups. With over 840 million vaccine doses administered worldwide, roughly 83% of shots have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income nations. 

The vaccine debate has carried over to college campuses, where universities are debating whether to mandate students be vaccinated before they return to campus in the fall. Rutgers University was the first to make such an announcement that it would indeed require all of its on-campus students to be vaccinated, with Brown University, Cornell University, Northeastern University and more following. 

Beginning last week, Case Western Reserve University is offering vaccinations to all members of the university community, in addition to local residents, aged 16 and older. 

Despite the potential that vaccines offer, some CWRU students are refraining from getting vaccinated due to concerns that potential side effects could affect their academics. To address this, the university has communicated with faculty and reiterated that professors will grant students leniency if they experience side effects and need to miss class or get an extension. 

Current university policy “strongly encourages members of the campus community who have the opportunity to be vaccinated to do so” and recognizes that some of CWRU’s partner institutions may issue vaccine requirements. All students, faculty and staff who work or attend classes on-campus are still required to continue weekly COVID-19 testing once vaccinated, as researchers are unclear if immunized individuals can still transmit the virus. 

While a CWRU COVID-19 vaccine mandate appears relatively straightforward, there are concerns about the logistical details of how such a policy would be implemented. 

Deepak Sarma, professor of religious studies at CWRU and professor of bioethics at CWRU School of Medicine, highlighted concerns about the “small hierarchy within the vaccines themselves,” with Pfizer-BioNTech showing 95% efficacy, Moderna showing 94% and Johnson & Johnson showing 66%. The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, which has not yet been approved in the U.S., has shown 76% effectiveness. Sharma also questioned how CWRU would verify immunization status for international students who get vaccinated overseas and may receive a vaccination that is not authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. 

Additionally, how would CWRU keep track of students who have been vaccinated? The answer is the daily health assessment, which, in addition to asking questions about daily symptoms and contact with individuals who may have COVID-19, now asks about vaccination status. However, the survey does not remember the information due to concerns about data security. The only information stored is whether your answers that day led to a recommendation to come into work on campus, or stay home. 

Some colleges already mandate several vaccines including hepatitis B and measles, mumps and rubella. In Ohio, all students in on-campus housing at public colleges are required to show proof of vaccination or get a waiver against meningococcal disease and hepatitis B. 

While CWRU does not require any immunizations for undergraduate or graduate students, except those in health-related schools or programs, all students are required to fill out an immunization form with their history of vaccinations already taken. 

It would be reasonable for the university to add COVID-19 vaccination to the immunization form that students are already required to fill out. Students who do not wish to get vaccinated due to medical or religious reasons could state that on the form. 

Ultimately, regardless of whether the university decides to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for students, faculty and staff who work or attend class on-campus and how they go about implementing that policy, vaccinations serve as a way for college life to return to normal.