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Should college students be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine? It’s too early for colleges to decide

Colleges likely will weigh how best to encourage vaccination and make it accessible and whether to require it for certain groups of students, such as athletes or those who live in residence halls.

Syringes with the COVID-19 vaccine sit at a station at the “Vaccine Clinic” inside the Virtua Barry D. Brown Health Education Center in Voorhees, N.J.
Syringes with the COVID-19 vaccine sit at a station at the “Vaccine Clinic” inside the Virtua Barry D. Brown Health Education Center in Voorhees, N.J.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

As president of student government at Temple University, Quinn Litsinger intends to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available for his age group — and he intends to encourage others to get it, too.

But he also noted that Temple has a diverse student body and he understands groups that have been marginalized may be skeptical about vaccines. So, he wouldn’t want Temple to make it a requirement.

“I don’t think it’s my place or the place of Temple to tell communities that have historical reasons to mistrust the vaccine that they have to get it,” said Litsinger, a junior from Cherry Hill.

Temple and other universities in the region say they haven’t decided on vaccine policy for students, noting that vaccines aren’t available for them yet and might not be for months. The vaccines currently are only approved for emergency use, with frontline health workers and nursing home residents eligible to get the shots.

But conversations are underway on campuses across the region, as the spring semester is set to open with the threat of coronavirus as great as ever. Colleges likely will weigh how best to encourage vaccination and make it accessible; whether to require it for certain groups of students, such as athletes or those who live in residence halls or study abroad; and whether monetary or other incentives could help. They’ll also look to guidance from local, state, and federal health authorities.

“We’re studying and evaluating how vaccines will be part of our COVID-19 mitigation efforts because the health, welfare, and safety of the members of our university communities remain a priority for us,” said Dave Pidgeon, a spokesperson for the 14-university Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

» READ MORE: Amid virus outbreak, Temple moves most instruction online for the rest of the semester

Requiring vaccinations is not unprecedented and for years has helped decrease the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases on campuses, officials say. Many universities require incoming students to have had vaccines for diseases like meningitis, measles, and chicken pox, with exemptions and waivers. At Pennsylvania State University, students can seek vaccine waivers for medical, religious, or philosophical objections, but may be removed from campus in the event of an outbreak, according to the school’s website.

It’s too early for colleges to decide whether to require COVID-19 shots, given the slow rollout of vaccines and the incoming administration’s potential to change policies, said Anita L. Barkin, cochair of the COVID-19 task force for the American College Health Association.

“What they should be doing is educating about the safety of the vaccine and encouraging students and staff and faculty to take advantage of a vaccine opportunity when it presents itself,” she said.

Schools should prepare to convey messages on multiple social-media platforms and involve a diverse group of students in developing those messages so they will resonate with peers, she said.

The association is planning to offer webinars on how to conduct mass vaccination clinics for COVID-19, she said, noting that colleges have held such clinics for other vaccines.

Ursinus College, a small private liberal arts school in Collegeville, said it is focused on making access to the vaccine as easy as possible and has applied to become a “closed point of dispensing” vaccines, said spokesperson Ed Moorhouse. That means the college would staff the site and give vaccines only to its own population.

» READ MORE: At Ursinus College, all students are tested for the coronavirus every week

Deciding on vaccine policy will be a balancing act for colleges desperate to return to more normal operations, and knowing the path to doing so involves the vaccination of as many people as possible to achieve herd immunity. Many colleges had hundreds — in some cases thousands — of coronavirus cases this fall, setting aside space on campus for student quarantine and isolation. Temple reverted to almost all-remote instruction less than two weeks after the fall semester began with more than 200 cases. Penn State has tallied more than 5,000 but remained open for in-person classes until Thanksgiving.

“It’s a tough call,” said Martha Compton, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration. “Each institution is going to have to make their own personal decisions.”

Public institutions, she said, may be less likely to require vaccines than private schools. And colleges that do could face court challenges, she said.

» READ MORE: Penn State prepares for first home football game with coronavirus a concern

Penn State has delayed the start of its in-person spring semester until Feb. 15. Instruction will begin remotely later this month. It has made no decisions on vaccination policy for students.

“We don’t expect broad availability [of the vaccine] for much of the semester, and not enough is known yet in terms of timing and distribution details and guidance from public health authorities,” said university spokesperson Lawrence Lokman.

Beth Seymour, Penn State’s faculty senate chair, said the university probably should strongly encourage, rather than require, the vaccine, given that some have concerns about vaccinations.

“I personally will get vaccinated,” she said. “I’m not going to hesitate.”

Zachary McKay, student body president, said students on campus should get vaccinated when they can to help keep the community safe. “As representatives of the University Park student body, we intend to get the vaccine and encourage our peers to join us,” he said.

Strong encouragement can be quite successful, said Peter F. Lake, a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Florida. Incentives, possibly a tuition break, or other reward may help, he said.

“The carrot often works as well as the stick, sometimes a lot better,” he said.

At Temple, conversations about vaccines are centered on hospital staff and the medical school, said Ray Betzner, university spokesperson. Temple’s health system is not mandating vaccinations, but rather educating employees and addressing fears they might have “in hope that they, in turn, may become messengers of the value of vaccination,” said Jeremy Walter, Temple Health spokesperson.

Temple will start classes Jan. 19 and eliminate spring break, Betzner said. Most classes will remain online, with about 1,600 students living in university housing, about half the amount that initially moved in last fall. The university anticipates conducting 20,000 coronavirus tests a week, Betzner said.

When vaccines become more widely available, Steve Newman, president of Temple’s faculty union, said he will encourage members to get them and sees it as an ethical obligation.

“While I understand why members of groups who have been treated abominably by the medical establishment might be reluctant to be vaccinated,” he said, “it provides a way for us to keep ourselves, our families, and our communities safe, and a way for us to do our jobs better.”