Colleges and Unvaccinated Students Are Set for a Standoff This Fall

Courtesy: Alyssa Jones
  • To avoid another wave of Covid-19 infections, hundreds of colleges have already said vaccinations will be mandatory for the fall semester.
  • Now students have just weeks to comply.

Hundreds of colleges have said the Covid vaccine will be mandatory for fall 2021, and with just weeks left before classes start, not all students are on board.

Some are taking their cases to court, others are petitioning. And yet, no college has reversed its policy.

Earlier this week, a federal judge upheld Indiana University's Covid vaccine requirement for the fall semester, dealing another blow to students who disagree with vaccine mandates.

Altogether, more than 500 colleges and universities across the country are requiring vaccines for at least some students or employees, according to data compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education. In most cases, students who refuse to get vaccinated won't be able to register for classes or will have their enrollment revoked.

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Most of these schools are concentrated on the East and West Coasts, including the State University of New York and the City University of New York, as well as California State University and the University of California, which impacts more than 1 million students, faculty and staff.

At the same time, only about 29% of adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have received at least one dose, the lowest rate of any age group, according to data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.  

Alyssa Jones, 19, isn't vaccinated even though she attends Virginia Tech — one of the schools that is requiring shots for the fall. Virginia Tech's more than 37,000 undergraduates and graduate students must report that they are fully vaccinated by Aug. 6.  

"We must do everything possible to avoid repeating the challenges of the last 14 months," President Tim Sands said in a letter to the community.

"It is essential that every student who can be vaccinated, is vaccinated."

Virginia Tech faculty and staff are strongly encouraged, not required, to be vaccinated but for students, there will only be exemptions for medical reasons and religious beliefs. 

"The high population density in residence halls, off-campus housing, and classrooms — combined with the mobility of students — presents challenges not seen in other settings" President Sands said.  

For her part, Jones says she has no problem with people getting vaccinated. "My issue is with the government mandating it," she said.

The junior from Ridgeway, Virginia, is also a state chair of Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian group active on nearly 400 college and university campuses.

Jones helped organize an online petition that says the vaccination mandate is a violation of student rights and that the decision "should be made between a student, their family, and their doctors."

"I know I'm part of a huge movement," she said. Still, Jones says her education comes first and un-enrolling "is not something I'm willing to sacrifice at this time."

"I'm waiting until the last possible minute, but I will get vaccinated if I am unsuccessful," she added. "Of the options available, that's the one with the least repercussions."

Covid outbreaks on college campuses have the potential to derail the fall semester, as well as the entire higher education system, according to Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

"I don't know anybody that can afford another year like last year," she said.

"We've also seen such a precipitous drop in the number of students who are attending college — the largest drop we have seen in decades," she added. "When we look at the risk of a lost generation of students, we need to look at the variables forcing students to drop out."

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 an inadequate substitute for being in the classroom. A significant number opted out entirely.

"Local mandates, be that at universities, colleges, businesses, cruise lines ... in those general categories, I believe that if we do have local mandates, we will get many more people vaccinated and that will be to the benefit of the entire country," Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's chief medical advisor, said recently on CNBC's Squawk Box.

To that end, some schools are providing additional incentives to get more undergraduates immunized.

For example, Rutgers University students who have uploaded their vaccination status are entered into a lottery to win a $500 gift card from the New Jersey school's campus technology store, and Rowan University, also located in the Garden State, is offering a $500 credit for their fall course registration with proof of vaccination.  

Other institutions without mandates are trying much greater motivators.

At Missouri State, where Covid shots are not required, students who get vaccinated could win free tuition for a year, plus housing, an unlimited meal plan, books, supplies and a designated parking spot.

The college is holding weekly drawings through Sept. 17, with grand prizes awarded on Sept. 24.  

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