St. Joseph’s University joined some others in the Philadelphia region this month in announcing that students, faculty, and staff would have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before participating in on-campus activities when the new academic year begins.
University officials said they received mostly positive reaction. Ann Green, an English professor, spent the last year teaching online because a family member is immunocompromised and could have become seriously ill from the coronavirus.
“I’m thrilled to be back face-to-face if everyone is vaccinated,” she said.
But the requirement irritated some parents who see it as infringing on their personal choice, rather than as a matter of public health. They say the vaccines — which are highly effective — are still approved only for emergency use, even though full approval is only a matter of time. These parents, which St. Joe’s says make up a small minority, argue that college-age students are less likely to get seriously ill from the virus than older people.
Some parents cited reports of heart inflammation in adolescents and young adults who received vaccines, even though public health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the inflammation is rare, mostly resolves on its own, and is far less dangerous than COVID-19. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration must warn of all side effects, and said last week that it planned to add a warning about the heart inflammation, according to Reuters.
“Some people believe the risk of the vaccine is actually greater than the risk of the virus itself,” said Dennis Morgillo, a St. Joe’s parent from Point Pleasant, N.J., who said his daughter won’t be getting it.
That misconception is a problem many campuses are likely to face as they prepare to open for what they hope is a new post-pandemic normal. Some campuses that brought students back last fall before vaccines were available, especially larger schools, experienced new outbreaks.
Now, as new cases and death rates plummet while vaccination rates rise, one thing is clear: With the region’s colleges differing widely in their approaches to vaccine requirements, another experiment is in the making.
Some — including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Villanova, Widener, Cabrini, Neumann, the College of New Jersey, and Princeton — are requiring both students and employees to be vaccinated. Others, including Swarthmore, Ursinus and Rowan, have issued the mandate just for students.
Rutgers will require both students and health-care and public safety employees to get the vaccine, but not the rest of the staff.
Rutgers spokeswoman Dory Devlin said testing data from the spring semester showed a 60% to 70% higher positivity rate among students than employees.
“This has been attributed to the highly mobile and highly interactive nature of university students since they often study and live in congregate settings,” she said.
Other universities, including Temple, Pennsylvania State, and the 14 schools in the state system, aren’t requiring vaccines at all, just strongly encouraging them.
“While circumstances like COVID-19 conditions could change this, this is our policy at the current time, and it is what we’re moving forward with for the fall semester,” said Steve Orbanek, a Temple spokesperson.
Arcadia University in Glenside said its decision hinges on the FDA removing the emergency use authorization for the vaccines. Until then, it will encourage but not require vaccines.
At most schools with mandates, students and employees must upload or show vaccination cards to prove their status. They can request waivers for medical or religious reasons. Vaccine requirements aren’t new, nor are waivers. Most campuses already require vaccines for such diseases as meningitis, measles, and chicken pox.
Across the country, more than 500 colleges are requiring COVID-19 vaccines for at least some students or staff, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Penn State has offered drawings with cash prizes, gift cards, and footballs autographed by coach James Franklin to students and employees who upload their vaccination cards. The school declined to say how many have uploaded their cards.
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education says there is no legislation that specifically enables it to require the vaccine. But public universities in some states, including California, Colorado and Oregon, have made that move.
Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature opposes vaccine mandates. The state House passed a resolution last week prohibiting public and private colleges from requiring vaccines. But Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has said he will veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
At St. Joe’s, the requirement was driven by a desire to return to normal campus life.
“Our students have been very clear that they want the richest academic experience possible,” Provost Cheryl A. McConnell said. “The way to make that happen is to make the community as highly vaccinated as possible.”
The university, she said, included staff in the mandate because students and staff must work together “to get back to normal as soon as possible.”
Those with waivers will be required to wear face masks when they are indoors and submit to COVID-19 testing once a week, she said.
That infuriated Jane McClintock, whose daughter will be a senior.
“It’s against our constitutional rights,” said McClintock, of Delran. “No one can force you to get a vaccine. You decide what’s best for your family.”
The Constitution may prevent the government from requiring vaccination, but St. Joe’s, as a private institution, has the right to do so.
Taylor Stokes, 21, St. Joe’s student body president, said she got vaccinated and would have done so even without a requirement, given that she has asthma. She supports St. Joe’s mandate, after the coronavirus took away so much of campus life.
“We think it’s a great way and a great start to try to get back to that campus culture that we lost due to the pandemic,” said the senior criminal justice major from West Philadelphia.
At Rutgers, some students and others held a rally last month opposing the vaccine mandate. Unvaccinated students will be barred from attending classes, and those with waivers will have to go to class remotely.
Widener will put employees who don’t comply on an unpaid six-week leave, and if they still aren’t vaccinated, they will be let go, president Julie E. Wollman said. Students, she said, will not be allowed in campus buildings if they don’t comply.
Wollman said she received a few complaints, and the school has refunded a small number of deposits to new students who withdrew because of the mandate.
Penn has said those who don’t comply will have to get a weekly COVID-19 test.
Drexel president John A. Fry said the university, where most employees already are vaccinated, would engage in “hand-to-hand negotiation” with a small number of holdouts who don’t have health or religious exemptions.
“We’re just going to try to work with everyone individually and say, ‘Look, how do we get you comfortable?’“ he said.
Rebecca Givan, the incoming president of the Rutgers faculty union, said that more than 95% of faculty are already vaccinated and that professors support a student mandate.
“People are in favor of anything that increases the safety of our campus for everyone,” she said.
Hayley Slusser, 20, a senior journalism major at Rutgers and editor-in-chief of the Daily Targum, the student newspaper, also welcomes the mandate. She’s already vaccinated, she said.
“Students are eager to get back to campus, and if this is the way to do it, so be it,” she said.