By Jillian Haguisan
With the general decrease in new daily cases of COVID-19 in the United States, Americans are eager to resume normal life as soon as possible. States have gradually opened up businesses, and in early May, the CDC lifted mask restrictions for fully vaccinated individuals. As the country begins reopening, a majority of colleges and universities are also planning to hold the fall term in-person. However, with thousands of students congregating in the summer, higher education institutions have to decide: should the COVID-19 vaccine be mandatory for all students and faculty? Considering the numerous schools already mandating the vaccine for the upcoming school year, the answer seems to be yes.
On April 2nd, Cornell University became the first college to announce that all students and faculty are required to be vaccinated for the fall semester; after Cornell, the other seven Ivy League schools, as well as some private universities, followed suit with this policy.
While most colleges and universities on the East Coast are in favor of mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for this fall, other colleges—a majority of which are public and in the midwest or southern regions—are not joining the bandwagon. For example, the University of Tennessee states that the vaccine is not required, but rather “strongly recommended,” according to their website.
The COVID-19 vaccines seem to be the most effective way to limit the spread of the virus, so why are some schools and colleges hesitant to mandate them? Federally, individuals are exempted from vaccine requirements for religious or medical reasons. However, while a medical condition can be diagnosed by a physician and proven, what constitutes a valid “religious reason” is vague. A recently-passed Utah bill, H.B. 233 Education Immunization Modifications, adds further ambiguity by including “personal beliefs” as a reason for vaccine exemption. There is no definite ruling as to what religious or personal beliefs are valid; consequently, it would be fairly easy for students to avoid the vaccination in states like Utah. Although this respects an individual’s freedom of choice, it also decreases the ratio of people who received the vaccine to people who are eligible for the vaccine.
The debate between protecting individual rights or maintaining public safety has been ongoing for years in this country. In the 1919 case Schenck v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause did not protect speech that posed a “clear and present danger,” but does this also apply to people choosing not to vaccinate themselves (when they have the opportunity to)? Probably not.
Even though being unvaccinated does increase the risk of catching and spreading COVID-19, it is unreasonable to assume that everyone who doesn’t want to get vaccinated wants to endanger themselves and others. Along with medical, religious, and personal reasons, other reasons might include inaccessibility, fear of potential side effects, and scheduling conflicts.
While there is no moral issue with being unvaccinated, there are still health and safety risks for students attending college despite not being fully vaccinated. The CDC does not consider young adults—who make up the majority of college students—high risk, but they are one of the major demographic groups who spread the virus. However, if a large enough percentage of students attending higher education institutions are fully vaccinated—which scientists believe would be 70-85%, according to NPR—then hopefully, herd immunity can protect the percentage of students who cannot or choose not to receive the vaccination.
Although requiring the vaccine amongst students would help reduce the spread of COVID-19, it is ultimately up to the individual college or university to decide.