Are vaccine mandates coming to your school?

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Currently, the hot topic of mandatory vaccination is an intensely debated concern at institutions of higher learning across the US. While every college and university is making its own decision about how to handle student vaccination rates, there are certain institutions that are mandating that enrolled students get the vaccine. Such mandates are raising legitimate concerns regarding medical privacy, individual student rights, and, most importantly, the opportunity to pursue higher education.

The decision to make the Covid-19 a mandatory requirement for students is occurring at both public and private institutions, which has led to several lawsuits and a rigorous debate on the topic. While there is a general consensus among educators and health professionals that students should get the vaccine, the mindset on whether or not this vaccine should be mandatory is still divided.

Cornell and Duke were among the first to mandate a Covid-19 vaccination for students though as of September 2021, there are over 700 schools countrywide that have invoked some kind of vaccine requirement. With over 700 schools requiring some kind of mandatory vaccination, are more colleges going to follow suit?

This issue has two very distinct answers depending on the type of institution you’re talking about.

Private Universities

For all intents and purposes, private schools are allowed to impose whatever mandates, regulations, and restrictions they see fit for their institution. The caveat to this is that any imposed restrictions and mandates from the school are not allowed to violate any state or federal law, especially in regards to discrimination.

Privately funded universities typically do not take government money and are therefore considered private entities. This means that technically private schools can absolutely mandate vaccinations for their students as if they were a private business. While these mandates would likely only apply to on-campus students, vaccine mandates could also impact faculty and staff as well.

While the legality of mandating vaccinations is going to vary from state to state, typically, private institutions are able to impose their own rules. One of the issues surrounding vaccine mandates, especially in regards to private schools, is that the mandates could potentially be discriminatory to certain religious and ethnic groups and even the physically disabled.

By the time you are reading this article, there could have been legislation passed that supports vaccination mandates or opposes them, as there are multiple lawsuits currently in play that could determine the long-term legality of vaccination mandates. We are in such a strange time in terms of what is allowed and/or accepted, and at the moment, everyone is just sort of along for the ride.

Public Universities

Due to their connection with both state and federal government, state-run universities will have to fall in line with whatever the law dictates as proper action regarding mandatory vaccines. As of right now, it is unlawful to require anyone to get the vaccine, but there are loopholes that would make it very difficult for an unvaccinated person to attend school in person. Even at a public university, certain restrictions, impositions, and “strong recommendations” can set a precedent for who is (or isn’t) allowed.

Let’s quickly look at the difference between a mandate and a requirement, as the difference between the two makes all the difference in understanding why some state-run schools can “require” a vaccine without “mandating” it.

A mandate is an ultimatum. “Get the vaccine, or you can’t attend school here.” There is no messing around, no alternatives like online classes; a mandate is plain and simple with no grey area.

On the other hand, a requirement is still a rule or regulation, but it is one that implies concessions will be made to those who cannot or will not comply. Think of a requirement as more of an “if, then” statement:

“If you get the vaccine, then you can come to class in person.”

“If you choose not to get the vaccine, then you will have to attend classes virtually or wear a mask.”

In matters of public safety, the state and all entities it controls possess the authority to restrict access to particular activities if it poses a public health risk. This is one of the reasons why masks have been required for unvaccinated persons in public spaces.

The idea is that unvaccinated persons pose a direct health risk to all other persons, not just the unvaccinated. So, being that it is widely accepted that being unvaccinated poses a health risk to themselves and others, state schools have been able to set up requirements that would otherwise be borderline unlawful.

While this type of authority has hardly ever been employed in the past, we are reaching a breaking point wherein more, and more schools are beginning to flex this power. There have already been several state schools like the entire California State University system that have vaccination requirements to attend on-campus events like classes, school functions, etc.

The major difference between a public and private university is this: if a public school were to require vaccination and limit in-person activities to unvaccinated persons, they would need to somehow allow those students to still participate in order to avoid subsequent legal response. In other words, unvaccinated persons would be offered alternatives like online classes and interactive digital functions. This way, the school is still within its legal rights by limiting activity without being discriminatory.

So are more colleges going to mandate vaccinations? It’s certainly possible. Private institutions are well within their rights to set forth vaccination mandates, and there are plenty of state-run schools that are doing their best to impose harsh restrictions against those who are unvaccinated.

For now, many schools are just trying to keep their students, faculty, and staff as safe as possible. As vaccine requirements become more common, and as legislation shifts toward being more proactive about vaccination, we may begin to see a more unified approach regarding vaccine mandates at schools across the country. One thing is certain, as long as Covid-19 is still a threat, the topic of vaccines and whether or not students should be required to get them will be an ongoing debate.

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