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More Colleges Say They'll Require Students To Have COVID-19 Vaccines For Fall

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Rutgers University in New Jersey was the first to announce it would be requiring students to have a COVID-19 vaccine by the fall. More than a dozen other colleges have followed that, including Duke University and Ivy League schools such as Cornell and Brown. And that number is only expected to grow. NPR's Elissa Nadworny joins us now to talk about all this.

Hey, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: All right. So tell us exactly what these mandates are saying.

NADWORNY: Well, all year colleges have been trying to figure out how to be open, how to house students, do face-to-face classes in a pandemic. And requiring vaccinations is just the next iteration of that. So Rutgers University, which has been out in front of this - it will require their students to have one of the three COVID-19 vaccines for fall. There will be some exemptions for medical reasons and others. Here's Antonio Calcado, who leads Rutgers' COVID-19 task force.

ANTONIO CALCADO: And we know that, look; it wasn't going to be popular with everybody. But we also knew that we needed to get word out early. Our goal is to make the safest campus in America - right? - the safest campus we can make. We felt that just simply encouraging would not have the same effect as requirement.

NADWORNY: So residential colleges are social spaces. Like, as I've seen firsthand across the country this year, many campuses have struggled to keep the coronavirus brought under control. And so there's a major incentive for schools and communities to have their students vaccinated.

CHANG: Understandably so. I mean, many colleges already require students to get other vaccines for other diseases, you know, beyond COVID before they can even move onto campus, right? So can you talk a little bit about the history behind getting vaccinated before attending school?

NADWORNY: Yeah, that's absolutely right. Residential colleges have long required vaccines, and this is an important point because they have the infrastructure to do this. They already have the portal to upload proof of vaccination. You know, disease outbreaks aren't unfamiliar to campuses, either. In many cases, outbreaks have led to vaccination campaigns. In 2015, after an outbreak of meningitis on the campus of the University of Oregon, where a freshman student died, the university set up a mass vaccination site. And actually, for that campaign, the school used adhesive bandages with the school's O logo on it to, you know, convince students to get vaccinated.

CHANG: Nice. How do college typically - how do colleges typically enforce their vaccination requirements?

NADWORNY: Well, most of the time they bar students from signing up for classes - so a registration hold. But they can also, you know, prevent you from living on campus. Or in some rare cases, you can face expulsion for not having proof.

CHANG: Expulsion - is that legal?

NADWORNY: Well, because vaccine mandates have been around, we do have some legal precedent. There's actually a case that goes back almost a century upholding college vaccine mandates. In 1925, a student sued the University of California for requiring a smallpox vaccine. The judge upheld the mandate. I talked with Dorit Rice. She's a law professor at UC Hastings College of the Law and studies vaccine mandates.

DORIT RICE: Most universities have the power to require vaccines, but we're dealing not only with federal law and state law. We're also dealing with the individual colleges. So the power of the university is really going to be at the institution level.

NADWORNY: So the thing that is new is that the current COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized by the FDA under an emergency use authorization, or EUA, which introduces a new situation for colleges. So if there are lawsuits, Rice says, that's where the arguments will be.

CHANG: OK. And real quick, in some states, young people can't even get a vaccine yet. So how is this going to work for them?

NADWORNY: Well, by April 19, all states in the U.S. will be able to have people 16 and up get vaccines. So colleges right now are focused on getting the students that they actually have on campus vaccinated before summer break comes along.

CHANG: That is NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

Thank you, Elissa.

NADWORNY: You bet. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny covers higher education and college access for NPR. She's led the NPR Ed team's multiplatform storytelling – incorporating radio, print, comics, photojournalism, and video into the coverage of education. In 2017, that work won an Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation. As an education reporter for NPR, she's covered many education topics, including new education research, chronic absenteeism, and some fun deep-dives into the most popular high school plays and musicals and the history behind a classroom skeleton.