Virginia official: Colleges can tell students to get vaccines

Massachusetts community colleges, Baylor make firm decisions on whether to mandate COVID-19 doses.
By: | April 26, 2021
Getty Images, Andriy OnufriyenkoGetty Images, Andriy Onufriyenko

Currently, only one higher education institution in the state of Virginia has mandated COVID-19 vaccines: Hampton University.

Other colleges and universities either have been reluctant to require them, or simply have decided not to for the fall semester. However, new guidance from the state’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, might affect those plans.

In a letter Monday to Virginia House of Delegates member Mark Keam, Herring said, “Virginia’s state institutions of higher education … may condition in-person attendance on receipt of an approved COVID-19 vaccine during this time of pandemic.”

Herring said individual institutions have the option to deem whether vaccinating their populations against the virus will help “protect public health and safety on their campuses.” Because Virginia is still under a state of emergency and because outbreaks have occurred at colleges and universities, Herring said it would be “reasonable” for institutions to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for students.

What about faculty and staff?

“Currently, there is no federal guidance on the Emergency Use Authorization of the COVID-19 vaccine specifically related to colleges and universities,” he wrote. “However, the Equal Opportunity Employment Act has provided detailed guidance that suggests employees can mandate the vaccine for employees. The COVID-19 tests that many colleges and universities have required were authorized under an EUA.”

Herring also said that institutions in the state under Title 23.1 of the Code of Virginia, could have the right to require COVID vaccinations for events or gatherings held on campus. But Herring did point out that colleges should consider religious and medical exemptions when making any decisions.

Some sign on to mandate, others won’t

Outside the state, a few more colleges and universities have lined up to announce they too will be requiring vaccines for entry this fall.

Boston College, Amherst College and Simmons College in Boston – along with nine universities from the Massachusetts state system – joined nine others from the state in announcing their mandates.

“The progress we are making on vaccination rates is critical to our ability to achieve a vibrant on-campus living and learning experience this fall,” Simmons University President Lynn Perry Wooten told the Simmons community. “Science has shown that the vaccines are very effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 and to help prevent serious illness and hospitalization.”

Although several other Boston-area institutions have said they will require vaccines, three major ones have not: Harvard University, MIT and Tufts University. Community colleges in Massachusetts won’t either, with its 15 presidents sending this statement to their communities:

“It is essential that we meet the needs of all of our students, who are often from the communities hit hardest by this pandemic and facing disproportionate access to the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Likewise, Baylor University in Texas said it would not require doses.

“We’ve received many questions over the past week about what the fall semester will entail in terms of COVID-19 protocols,” Baylor President Linda Livingstone said in a statement. “While our planning process continues, I can confirm that the University will not require a COVID-19 vaccination for students, faculty and staff for the fall semester. However, our medical team strongly encourages everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Southern New Hampshire University is mandating them, along with Scripps College in California, becoming the fifth college from Claremont to mandate vaccines (Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna, Pitzer and Pomona College).

Macalester College became the first in the state of Minnesota to impose the requirement.

Macalester President Suzanne Rivera told students, faculty and staff in a message: “Put simply, our students and employees deserve to live and work in an environment where public health measures help keep us all safer.”