Some colleges confront political headwinds in adopting COVID vaccine mandatesApril 8, 2021
As a small but growing number of colleges announce plans to require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for the fall semester, college administrators who are deciding whether to follow suit face a politically fraught landscape.
At least 10 colleges have announced plans to require all students to be vaccinated against COVID, with the University of Notre Dame joining the list Wednesday.
Many legal experts agree that student vaccine requirements will likely stand up in court. But there will likely be court battles.
“I think we’re going to see legal challenges, because my sense is that this issue is very quickly becoming far less a legal issue or even a science and data and facts issue and it’s becoming a political issue,” said Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education. ACE recently released an issue brief to aid college leaders in deciding whether to require or encourage vaccines.
“Colleges and universities embrace science and data and facts, and there seems little doubt at this stage with [more than] 150 million shots in arms in the United States that the science and the data overwhelmingly support the fact that COVID vaccines are the best and quickest way out of the pandemic and the best promise of bringing students and their campuses back to something approaching normal,” McDonough said. “Then the question becomes how do you get here. Different schools are going to be sitting in different contexts. Some are in politically fraught places in terms of encouraging and mandating vaccines. Some are going to be in a place that has state laws that are fully aligned with the idea that a college can require various vaccinations as a condition of showing up campus.”
In some states, colleges may find themselves constrained by state lawmakers. That’s already happening in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed an executive order Monday prohibiting public or private entities that receive public funding from denying service or entry to a “consumer” due to COVID-19 vaccination status.
Elizabeth Sepper, a professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin who studies topics related to health, bioethics and religious liberty, said there’s “no question” that the order “constrains public universities in Texas from requiring proof of vaccination” for enrollment or housing. She said that the degree to which it constrains the state’s private colleges is contingent on whether they receive state or municipal funding.
Sepper lamented what she described as the “politicization of what really is an issue of public health and safety.”
“Colleges bring together people who have contact with lots of different age groups,” Sepper said. “They live together, they party together, they take classes together. It’s a no-brainer that this is a very low-hanging fruit for the sort of public health efforts we always make.”
St. Edward’s University, a private…