More than 35 colleges and universities across the country are requiring that students obtain the COVID-19 vaccine before enrolling in classes for the fall semester.
But institutions in the tri-state area are adhering to the guidance of federal authorities, who presently advise against issuing mandates because the vaccines only have been granted emergency use authorization.
University administrators are, instead, encouraging students to obtain vaccines, while also maintaining many of the social distancing, screening and masking protocols implemented during the current academic year.
“It’s still fairly fluid now, but we’re taking the approach that week by week we continue to encourage and educate,” said Loras College President Jim Collins. “We’re confident that once students go home and/or once students are here for May term, many more will be getting the vaccination.”
About 30% of students, faculty and staff already have done so, he said, an “impressive” feat given the limited access that college-age students have had to date.
All U.S. states have expanded coronavirus vaccine eligibility to people aged 16 and older. Iowa did so on April 5, but until recently, finding open appointments could prove a challenge.
Loras already requires that most students show proof of immunization against diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella.
The possibility of requiring COVID-19 immunization “certainly exists,” Collins said, but the institution, which intends to return to face-to-face instruction in the fall, hopes to avoid that scenario.
“If you do mandate, then you also risk the potential for lawsuits,” he said.
Scientists warn that unless 70% to 90% of the population acquires resistance to the coronavirus, herd immunity will not be reached. Public health officials nationwide observed a rise in community spread of coronavirus last fall after universities reopened to students and are fearful that could repeat in the absence of widespread vaccination.
But surveys indicate that younger people are less willing to receive the vaccination than the general population.
According to data from Kaiser Family Foundation, 25% of people ages 18 to 29 are opting to “wait and see” before obtaining the vaccine, while 15% only will do so if required. And 11% said they would not do so under any circumstance.
Even among institutions that require COVID-19 vaccinations, exceptions are made based on medical or religious grounds.
The hassle of collecting and storing sensitive health data has caused some institutions to shy away from requiring vaccinations altogether.
“That is a personal health decision,” said Kathy Nacos-Burds, vice president of learning and student success at Northeast Iowa Community College. “Our role in our college is to educate people and get them to the best resources.”
However, some students might be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine irrespective of their institution’s policies, such as athletes participating in NCAA sports or medical students engaged in a clinical practicum.
University of Dubuque administrators are optimistic that as more people are vaccinated, the school can lift its face mask requirements in the fall, which primarily will consist of in-person classes.
The institution has no plans to require vaccination, said Mark Ward, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty.
“In order to require that, we have to be able to provide them,” he said. “That’s part of the discussion here.”
The University of Wisconsin-Platteville is opting for a carrot rather than a stick.
UW-System interim President Tommy Thompson recently told the Board of Regents that no UW institution will require COVID-19 vaccination, but they will reward students who do so by eliminating COVID-19 testing requirements.
UW-P students currently are required to undergo a screening on a weekly or biweekly basis, depending on if they reside on campus.
Clarke University plans to survey employees and students prior to the start of the fall semester to determine how many have been vaccinated, said spokesperson Gayle Langel. Vaccinations will not be required, she said, and a decision to do so is “still premature.”
“When one looks at the list of schools coming forward with a vaccination mandate, the super majority are focused on students only,” Langel said. “Clarke is a community university and, as such, considers its students, employees and wider community in decisions like this.”
Jason Wood, president of Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore, said in light of the discomfort surrounding the vaccine and the fact that the institution does not require it, COVID-19 safety protocols such as wearing masks likely will remain in place.
“Our approach will be to educate our students and to encourage individuals to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is available to them,” he said.