Universities that have adopted a mandate to vaccinate COVID-19 this fall are broadly enforcing the rules, although many schools have made things simpler by granting an exemption to almost any student who requests the vaccine.
Faced with pockets of resistance and scattered lawsuits, colleges are acting cautiously because forcing students to vaccinate when they have religious or medical objections can put schools in difficult legal territory. For some, there are additional concerns that a tough stance could lead to a drop in recruitment.
However, mandated universities report much higher vaccination rates than their surrounding communities, even in places with a high degree of vaccination hesitancy. Some universities are seeing near full compliance with the rules, including state flagship schools in Maryland, Illinois and Washington, DC, helping them avoid major outbreaks like the one that disrupted classes a year ago.
Since announcing its mandate two months ago, the number of Ohio University students and staff who reported vaccinations at its Athens campus has grown from 69% to nearly 85%.
“Education and encouragement only helped us,” said Gillian Ice, a professor of social medicine who oversees the school’s response to the pandemic. “We had a lot of those who were in a quandary. They weren’t necessarily against the vaccine. They didn’t think they were putting themselves at high risk. “
School officials are closely monitoring how the mandate affects school enrollment, she said. Some students are more likely to transfer, but there is also a less active group who support this demand and would not have come to campus without it, Ice said.
At least 1,100 colleges and universities now require proof of COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education tracking.
At some schools last spring, students were told they would need to get vaccinated before returning to campus this fall. Others refrained from having to get vaccinated until the FDA gave full approval for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in August.
Many other universities do not impose vaccination requirements on anyone on campus. In some cases, political leaders prevented universities from issuing mandates.
Virtually every university that has vaccines allows students and staff to apply for an exemption for medical or religious reasons. Fewer schools allow students to opt out of shooting for philosophical reasons.
Most of the largest public universities in the country do not receive many requests for exemptions from classes, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. At the same time, these colleges satisfied the vast majority, and in some cases all requests.
In many colleges, requests are evaluated by committees that include medical experts, faculty, and student life administrators. Some schools ask students to take notes signed by doctors or detailed statements explaining the principles of their religious beliefs.
At Virginia Tech, where 95% of students are now vaccinated, the school granted all 1,600 requests from students if they agreed to weekly testing.
“It’s a balance. How badly do you want to attack people? Are you saying you cannot be on campus if you are not vaccinated? “Said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “We didn’t want to go that far.”
According to him, the school leaders decided not to question doctors and not to question anyone’s religious beliefs.
“This is just not the kind of conversation we would like to get into,” Sands said of religious exceptions. “Everyone has their own approach to their faith.”
The Virginia Institute of Technology, which enrolled more than 37,000 students this fall, also sent 134 students who could not confirm they were vaccinated or granted exemption.
Jake Yecke, a junior graduate from the University of Oakland in Michigan, was thinking about a transfer, but he was reluctant to give up his scholarship after the school announced mandatory vaccinations in the fall.
He received an exemption from religion for reasons that he did not want to talk about. Getting the shot should be a personal choice, he said.
But even with the exception, he feels exiled because he is no longer allowed to be part of the university choir or his vocal-jazz ensemble, he said. According to him, in vocal lessons, he must sing behind a wall of plexiglass in a mask, and now the teachers treat him differently.
“There are a lot of these kinds of things,” said Jetske, a music technology specialist. “I am forbidden to do a lot. It’s really frustrating because I came here to sing. “
Amanda Bourne, who is studying in the Grand Valley State of western Michigan, also received a religious exemption. She said she knows at least 10 students who didn’t want the vaccine but got it anyway.
“It was a scare tactic and it worked,” she said. “They want to continue living their lives, going to the school they have chosen, and continuing their career path.”
The nine-campus University of Louisiana system informed students immediately after FDA approval that they would need to get vaccinated or receive a medical or religious exemption before enrolling in classes next semester. State law provides for broad exemptions from vaccine requirements.
The results were mixed, with a third of McNease State University’s students applying for an exemption, while at the University of New Orleans only 6% asked to miss a shot. Overall, vaccination rates have increased.
Jim Henderson, president of the system, said there would likely be twice as many exemption requests if the vaccine had been required prior to FDA approval.
“Every step removes indecision,” he said. “If we approach this from an academic and educational point of view, students will be receptive to it for the most part.”
Associated Press author Kathleen Foody of Chicago contributed to this report.