- Many universities and colleges are requiring their students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before allowing them to attend fall classes in person.
- Requiring students to get certain vaccinations before coming to campus isn’t a new protocol.
- Mask-wearing, physical distancing, and proper hand hygiene will still be necessary for the foreseeable future.
An increasing number of higher education institutions are requiring students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before attending campuses in the fall. Among these are Rutgers University, Cornell University, Duke University, and Brown University.
“Although it is common for the public to view our colleges and universities as a uniform population of healthy 18- to 24-year-old students, nothing could be further from the truth on most campuses,” Michael Huey, MD, FACHA, interim chief executive officer at American College Health Association (ACHA), tells Get Meds Info. “A COVID-19 vaccination requirement helps to protect those high-risk individuals with ‘herd immunity,’ as well as protect students, faculty, and staff who have medical and religious exemptions that preclude vaccination.”
The announcements come a few months prior to the fall semester, giving students plenty of time to get fully vaccinated before the start of the 2021-2022 school year.
Why Require COVID-19 Vaccination?
Earlier this year, college-age individuals had one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection, so for a safe return to classrooms, it’s important students get vaccinated.
“According to CDC surveillance, 523 in 100,000 individuals between 18 to 24 years of age were diagnosed with COVID-19 daily in early January 2021, whereas 294 in 100,000 individuals had COVID-19 in the 65 to  years group,” Inci Yildirim, MD, PhD, vaccinologist and pediatric infectious disease specialist at Yale Medicine, and associate professor of pediatrics and global health at the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut, tells Get Meds Info.
Requiring the COVID-19 vaccine not only protects students from the virus but also the people they’re in regular contact with, whether it’s faculty, staff, or family.
“U.S. campuses have many students, faculty, and staff at increased-to-high risk for severe COVID-19 illness and complications, including older age groups, individuals at risk due to economic, social and behavioral factors, community members with high-risk medical conditions, and individuals with obesity,” Huey says.
The ACHA, an organization of college health professionals representing over 800 institutions of higher education, supports the policies and approaches of educational institutions requiring COVID-19 vaccination for students.
“Along with most experts in the field of public health and infectious diseases, ACHA recognizes that comprehensive COVID-19 vaccination is the most effective way for college campuses to return to a safe and complete on-campus experience for students in fall semester 2021,” Huey says.
Experts say that the vaccination requirement eliminates the need for fully vaccinated students to quarantine upon arrival on campus for those who travel from other states or countries. It also allows them to participate in performances, events, sports competitions, and other appropriately sized gatherings that are generally considered a part of the college experience.
What This Means For You
If you are currently a college student, check the updated fall semester requirements for your educational institution. You may be required to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before you can attend classes on campus. However, exemptions are offered to those with religious or medical concerns.
Requiring Vaccinations Isn’t New
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have required immunization prior to enrollment.
“Pre-matriculation vaccination requirements for students attending college in the United States are not new,” Huey says. “Most U.S. campuses have had vaccination requirements for decades.”
There are plenty of vaccines recommended for school-age children, which include:
- Chickenpox (varicella) vaccine
- Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine
- Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine
- Polio (IPV) vaccine
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine
- Hepatitis A vaccine
- Hepatitis B vaccine
- Yearly flu vaccine
These shots are especially crucial in campuses and dorms where vaccine-preventable diseases can easily spread.
“Aside from the shots that students are required to get through grade, middle, and high schools, most colleges require that students receive the Meningococcal (meningitis) vaccination,” Melva Thompson-Robinson, DrPH, executive director of the Center for Health Disparities Research in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Public Health, tells Get Meds Info. “Some campuses this past academic year also required that students get the influenza vaccination as well.”
Some individuals, however, raise the issue that the three COVID-19 vaccines available in the country only have the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) instead of full approval.
“It is not yet a given that one or more of the vaccines will win full approval by the fall,” Huey says. “Although many legal experts have stated that an EUA status does not preclude an institutional vaccination requirement, college and university leadership will need to have in-depth discussions with their general counsel about this issue before settling upon an approach.”
The EUA was based on vaccine safety and efficacy from clinical trials and the current risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This risk is even higher for students who are constantly sharing rooms and unable to maintain physical distance, Yildirim says.
Additional Measures to Protect Students
Colleges and universities may have the power to require certain vaccinations, but vaccines alone aren’t enough to make a return to in-person learning run smoothly. According to Yildirim, colleges need to have more safety measures in place to protect their students, including:
- Offering vaccination on campus in case of vaccine supply limitations in states where students come from
- Providing facilities for a student to isolate until they are fully vaccinated
- Constructing a strong plan and protocol in place regarding vaccine requirement exemption due to religious, medical, or personal concerns
- Establishing direct communication with students to address their questions and concerns regarding the COVID-19 vaccines
- Monitoring local COVID-19 infection rates to be prepared to adjust to evolving public health recommendations
“Among the challenges of requiring students to get the COVID-19 vaccine include students following through on getting both doses,” Thompson-Robinson says. “Ideally, the Johnson and Johnson vaccination would have been great for students, because it is a one-time shot. Unfortunately, with the pause on that vaccination, in particular, efforts would have to be stepped up to get students to come back for the second shot of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.”
It’ll be crucial for universities to ramp up their efforts for vaccinating as many students as possible before the end of this year’s spring semester.
Masks and Physical Distancing Remain Necessary
Experts say, even with vaccination, it’s important to keep taking the safety precautions already set in place for the time being.
“Masks should still be worn as we have seen the COVID-19 virus mutate several times,” Thompson-Robinson says. “Until we have control over the variants and vaccines that address them, wearing masks and social distancing will be necessary. If booster shots are needed, then those shots will need to be made available to everyone.”
Even if the majority of student bodies get fully vaccinated, it’s too soon to begin rolling back precautions. Within campus grounds, students don’t just interact with other students, but also faculty, staff, and visitors. They may also go home to their families, visit other locations to conduct research, and more. Students regularly mix with other populations, so preventing transmission is crucial for protecting students and the greater community.
“Until a college can be sure that they have reached ‘herd immunity,’ which experts say is 75-80% of the campus population immune by vaccine or infection, mitigation strategies remain critically important, including masks, physical distancing, hand washing, and avoidance of large crowded group settings,” Huey says.
It will take some time before educational institutions return to complete “normalcy.”
“At the end of the day, we have to remember that it took three years for the country to come out of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” Thompson-Robinson says. “Despite the advances in science and medicine, we still may not be back to normal by the end of the summer.”
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.