Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo
In this July 10, 2013, file photo, prospective students tour Georgetown University's campus. Georgetown has mandated that students returning to campus this fall must receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo
More than a year after the coronavirus pandemic brought in-person instruction to a grinding halt, colleges and universities across the region are hoping the increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccines could signal a return to some semblance of normal campus life this fall.
But with just a few months to go before the start of the fall semester, a growing number of institutions across the region are grappling with whether to mandate the vaccine for students who plan to return to campus.
In late March, Rutgers University became one of the first schools in the U.S. to announce such a mandate; at least a handful of other schools, including Johns Hopkins University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, Trinity Washington University, and American University have since followed suit. (American University holds the license to WAMU, which owns DCist.)
George Koor is a research librarian and writing professor at AU and says he's already received his vaccine and thinks the mandate will allow the university to provide a more robust college experience for students.
"The urgency is on behalf of the staff," Koor, told DCist/WAMU. "As librarians, we are placed in public-facing service spots that would not be safe without a mandate."
Daniel Ryan, a graduate student studying public relations at GWU, says he received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and thinks GWU decision to mandate it sends a clear message to students and staff.
"It makes it very clear," Ryan said. "What you don't want is gray area and some people not getting the vaccine, but still being allowed to attend class."
When asked recently at a press conference about students needing to get vaccinated at local campuses, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser responded, "I love it!"
"We know that the students miss college life. And we also know that this will help with all of the university operations, including their ability to bring their staff back, so we think that it's a great idea. It's good that these announcements are being made early so that the young people are making a plan to get vaccinated at home before they come to school," Bowser said.
But, some schools in the region have stopped short of requiring the vaccine for students, faculty, and staff, instead "urging" or "encouraging" members of their university communities to get the shot. That's the case at Virginia Tech, where they've opined that they can't mandate the vaccine because it has been authorized only for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In northern Virginia, George Mason University started debating the matter earlier this month. University President Gregory Washington told the Washington Business Journal that he wants students to return to in-person learning this fall. The campus has already set up a clinic to encourage students to get the vaccine.
"We haven't decided how we are going to handle that yet in terms of a mandate," Washington told the Journal. "But I feel very strongly that students should be vaccinated when they come to campus and interact with other students."
The University System of Maryland's Board of Regents voted Friday to give Chancellor Jay Perman the authority to create a COVID-19 vaccination policy for the fall. And Perman, who is a doctor, made his position on the need for vaccinations clear.
"I believe that vaccination is necessary, and that vaccination is especially necessary on college campuses," Perman told the board. "Widespread vaccination is how we'll have a fall semester that resembles our pre-pandemic normal."
That vote by the board came after Sandra Benson Bradley from the Maryland attorney general's office wrote in a legal opinion that "if [University System of Maryland] has sufficient evidence that mandatory vaccinations are reasonably required to protect the public health and safety, USM could legally mandate vaccinations. USM would likely have to provide reasonable accommodations for medical conditions or religious objections."
Bradley noted in her letter that a number of court cases have already upheld mandatory vaccinations: In 1905, the Supreme Court upheld a mandate for the smallpox vaccination, in 1922 the high court said vaccines could be mandated in public and private schools, and in 1944 the court determined that religious freedom does not allow individuals the liberty to spread disease in their surrounding community. Bradley concluded her legal opinion by stating that "USM's decision to mandate is reasonable and necessary to control COVID-19 and prevent campus outbreaks."
Dr. Leana Wen, a public health expert at GWU, agrees the vaccine is necessary to prevent campus outbreaks. Wen says it's typical for schools and businesses to mandate vaccinations against diseases including measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox. A survey of 100 four-year institutions in the U.S. shows that almost 85% already mandate the vaccine formeasles, mumps, and rubella.
"This is about protecting the health and wellbeing of the other people there," Wen told DCist/WAMU. "I think that [the COVID vaccine] needs to be seen as an extension of the health screening that is already being done."
Wen says schools' other options for preventing transmission is continuous symptom checking and surveillance testing, "but proof of vaccination is the most expedient and most effective way of getting there."
At American University and George Mason University, and others in the area students, faculty, and staff are required to show proof of a negative COVID test and complete daily self-screening prior to arriving on campus for any classes. So far this semester, AU has had 170 COVID cases with about three-quarters coming from students living off-campus. Since the end of January, GMU has had 276 students and 53 faculty members test positive.
Colleen Grablick contributed reporting
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.