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Will more colleges require vaccinations for students returning to campus in September 2021?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Rutgers University in the US becomes the first college to announce that it will require students, with some exceptions, to be vaccinated against COVID before arriving on campus in fall 2021
  • The university says it will work with international students coming to the US from overseas to get them vaccinated upon their arrival
  • While the decision will pose challenges – some potentially of a legal nature and others around possible vaccine refusal among some students – research shows that many students are in favour of schools mandating COVID vaccination for students attending in-person classes
  • Other US colleges are mulling whether or not they will follow Rutgers’ lead
  • Industry experts believe that educators will soon have to announce their COVID vaccine policies for students deciding this spring where to apply to for fall 2021, indicating that such policies will be a new determinant of demand for institutions and programmes

President Biden’s ambitious COVID vaccination targets and determination to beat back the virus have prompted one US university – Rutgers – to announce that it will require students to be vaccinated before they return to campus in the fall of 2021. Rutgers enrols 71,000 students on three campuses, more than 9,000 of whom are international and who come from 125+ countries.

In the announcement, Rutgers said that the decision is based on the president’s assurances that vaccines will be available to all Americans by the end of May as well as public health experts’ assessments. Some exceptions will be made, and students will be able to request exemption based on religious or medical reasons. Students learning exclusively online will not be required to show proof of immunisation.

Rutgers intends to set up a vaccination clinic in the future; until then, students aged 18+ are advised to get the Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson vaccine at public clinics. Currently, US law says that students younger than 18 can only get the Pfizer vaccine, so Pfizer is the only option for students 18 years old and under for the moment.

For international students overseas, Rutgers says that it will designate staff to help these students get vaccinated upon arrival in the US.

Will vaccines be available in time?

Under President Biden, the US’s COVID vaccine rollout is proceeding much more quickly than in most other countries; the president’s previous goal of administering 100 million shots by his 100th day in office was reached nearly six weeks ahead of schedule. The new target is double that: 200 million by the 100th day.

However, President Biden has not set a target for when college-aged Americans can expect to have vaccines available to them. Chief COVID medical adviser to the president, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he hopes that teenaged students will return to school in the fall with vaccines available to them: “Maybe not the very first day, but certainly in the early part of the fall for that fall educational term.”

Currently, in the state of New Jersey, where Rutgers is located, just under 20% of the population has been fully vaccinated and New Jersey has been one of the US states hit hardest by COVID deaths.

The safest campus experience possible

Rutgers’ president, Jonathan Holloway, said,

“We are committed to health and safety for all members of our community, and adding COVID-19 vaccination to our student immunisation requirements will help provide a safer and more robust college experience for our students.”

In 2020, many colleges and universities in the US were besieged with COVID cases, with some registering thousands of cases. While 2020 was worse than this year in terms of outbreaks, The New York Times reports that “at least 17 colleges have already reported more than 1,000 cases in 2021.” At Rutgers, more than 1,700 students have tested positive for Covid-19 since May 2020.

Research shows support among students

It will be interesting to see how Rutgers’ vaccine requirement will play among students. On the one hand, a safer campus is extremely attractive and offers the promise of a far better social experience than was possible on the locked-down, restricted environment on many campuses in 2020 and even now. A vaccinated student population also lowers the risk of classes having to move online due to COVID outbreaks – and IDP research has shown that international students are highly motivated to enrol in foreign schools that offer in-person learning.

Antonio Calcado, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Rutgers, told Inside Higher Ed that he’s looking forward to the end of the current need to deliver almost all programmes online:

“I’m looking out the window now and my campus is just empty. There’s no one even walking the streets. We need to use every tool available to us to be able to bring back the college experience for our students. They deserve the college experience.”

On the other hand, the requirement will be difficult for some students to achieve and it may be off-putting to others who do not want to receive the vaccine. There is, however, evidence of lower vaccine skepticism within the college-aged population. For Florida-based Barry University student Kaeddy Garcia, a vaccine requirement at her college would be welcome: “We could all be safe, healthy and be able to have regular class and get back to normal,” she told NBC Florida.

A January poll among 1,000 undergraduate students by research company College Pulse suggests that Ms Garcia isn’t alone. It found that 71% said “colleges have the right to require students to get vaccinated before returning to campus.”

Hayley Slusser, editor-in-chief of Rutgers’ student-run newspaper, The Daily Targum, told CNN that,

“Safety is really important. As somebody who commutes to school and lives with a high-risk individual, I would feel more comfortable knowing that everyone on campus is vaccinated and we wouldn’t contribute to anyone getting sick on campus (with Covid-19) ever again.”

Will the decision inspire other colleges?

It’s possible that Rutgers’ vaccination requirement will set the stage for other US colleges – and universities in other countries – to do the same. It hasn’t happened yet, but debate is underway at several about the idea.

Matthew Roche, the VP for student affairs at St. Thomas University in Miami, said,

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the policy, there’s good guidance that would suggest that universities could do that and each campus has to make their own distinction and Rutgers is a public university which also changes the narrative a little bit. Every discussion that we’re having is just weighing those options of what is the best impact and creating the safest environment on campus.”

Emily Rounds, co-chief of operations at the College Crisis Initiative, which researches the response of higher education to the pandemic, thinks that Rutgers’ decision will mark the start of a trend. “I think that we’ll see a lot of other institutions follow in Rutgers’ steps over the next few weeks.”

At the very least, Rutgers’ example will lead to an environment in which students will want to know what a college’sCOVID vaccine policy is – and this may influence their opinion about its desirability.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, told Higher Ed Dive that “there’ll be increased pressure on schools to take a stance and to be transparent about what they plan on doing in the fall.”

Schools may also feel pressure to announce their COVID vaccine policies very soon. Dorit Reiss, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, notes,

“Spring is also a key point in the admissions cycle, as students are deciding where they’ll enroll for the fall. Waiting for approval may mean students will not know, when they make the decision, if a vaccine is mandated, and that may be unfair. Announcing early gives students information they need.”

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