Why Arizona’s ruling may not sway universities to seek vaccine mandates

Three institutions that installed mask requirements are not likely to go a step further when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations.
By: | September 29, 2021
The University of Arizona launched a statewide coronavirus antibody testing initiative with the state of Arizona this week.Photo courtesy of the University of Arizona

Will a court ruling in Arizona that halted legislation banning mask and vaccine mandates pave the way for higher education institutions to seek new COVID-19 requirements for students, staff and faculty?

It is unlikely, noted the state’s Board of Regents, despite Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper putting the brakes on a budget bill from Republicans that included a slew of items unrelated to spending, including barring vaccine mandates. That Senate Bill, if approved, would have gone into effect today and also placed restrictions on school districts from imposing mask mandates. Republican officials have vowed to appeal.

“We do not believe yesterday’s ruling impacts any of the current COVID-related policies at our public universities, and the universities have not indicated any plans to change them,” the Board of Regents noted in a statement to University Business.

That is partly because Gov. Doug Ducey installed an executive order in June that bars institutions from implementing requirements around COVID-19. The Senate bill would have given further weight to those restrictions. As of now and without litigation, the executive order stands until “the termination of the public health emergency.”

In that order, Ducey wrote: “The Arizona board of regents, a public university or a community college may not require that a student obtain a COVID-19 vaccination or show proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination or place any conditions on attendance or participation in classes or academic activities, including mandatory testing or face covering usage if the person chooses not to obtain a COVID-19 vaccination or disclose whether the person has been vaccinated against COVID-19 unless the vaccination or other mandate is required by the laws of this state.”


More from UB: State-by-state colleges requiring vaccines


Three public universities—Arizona State, Northern Arizona and the University of Arizona—however, managed to get around the facial covering restriction by mandating them for all students in public indoor settings where distancing cannot be achieved, not solely those who were unvaccinated or vaccinated. The same has been done with testing on campuses, despite Ducey’s call to “only require testing due to a significant COVID-19 outbreak in a shared student housing setting that poses a risk to students or staff.” But when it comes to vaccines, there has been hesitancy to try to install requirements, with leaders forced to strongly encourage them.

Similarly, public colleges and universities in South Carolina fought to install mask mandates and got the backing of the state’s Supreme Court. But none have challenged the ban on vaccines. In both states, less than a handful have implemented vaccine requirements—the public tribal institution Diné College and private Prescott College in Arizona, and privates Furman University and Wofford College in South Carolina. More than 1,000 institutions have vaccine mandates in place but most are in states that do not have restrictions.

A quick look at the data shows case numbers at various public universities in Arizona:

  • The University of Arizona has had 108 positive COVID-19 cases in the past 10 days and more than 540 since the beginning of August. Still, that is only 1.8% of the total tests conducted. The university notes that more than 30,000 have uploaded proof of being vaccinated.
  • At Arizona State University, there were 10 positive cases in the past week and around 900 positive tests (faculty and students) since Aug. 1. As for known cases, ASU notes there are 195 among more than 77,000 students (a 0.25% rate) and 31 among faculty (0.14%). ASU has tested nearly 60% of its population on campus since the start of August.
  • Northern Arizona University currently has 107 positive cases among its on- and off-campus students. In its weekly reporting from Sept 12., there were 217 positive tests, or 6.3% of overall tests done.