How Much is Too Much? College and University COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates

Danielle McNamara

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023

As schools attempt to return to “normalcy”, approximately 1,000 colleges and universities have mandated vaccines for students. While the majority of these schools have relatively high vaccination rates, students complain that extra precautions including student surveillance and monitoring are going too far. Conversely, many schools in states with notoriously lax COVID-19 mandates struggle to keep students safe while following state mandates.

Vaccine mandates across the States

While many schools shut their campuses down altogether for the 2020-2021 school year, roughly 1,000 schools have mandated vaccinations for their students. While each school’s policy may differ, most, at a minimum, require the vaccination to register for classes or step foot on campus.

According to a recent survey, approximately seventy-two percent of college students support vaccine mandates on college campus. Nevertheless, with mandates inevitability comes backlash from students unwilling to get vaccinated. However, despite dozens of lawsuits challenging school vaccine requirements, no college has reversed its policy. Specifically, a federal judge upheld Indiana University’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement, holding that the mandate did not constitute forced vaccination because students had other options such as taking a semester off or attending a different university.

Beyond a vaccine mandate

As each school’s individual vaccine mandate varies, the return to campus for many students has brought concerns that some COVID-19 mitigations were superfluous.

Schools like the University of Southern California (“USC”), where approximately ninety-five percent of students are vaccinated, require proof of a weekly negative COVID-19 test to enter campus. These students are not allowed to pull their masks down for any reason while inside a classroom with other students, including taking a sip of water.

Furthermore, Oakland University outside of Detroit, Michigan attempted to require its students to wear “bio buttons”which tracked the students heart rate, temperature, and respiration. These “bio buttons” would then notify the school if a student’s statistics show signs of COVID-19 symptoms. This requirement faced mass backlash by students, as a petition against their implementation reached over 2,000 signatures.

Various other universities have implemented strict punishments for failure to wear a mask. For example, Montana State University created a policy putting students on probation and eventual suspension in the case of multiple incidences of mask violations reported by a professor.

State intervention prohibiting vaccine mandates

On the opposite end of the spectrum, various states have forbidden colleges and universities from taking precautions such as mandatory vaccination or test-taking for unvaccinated students.

Some state schools such as Arizona State University, have attempted to implement rules for unvaccinated students. These include social distancing where wearing masks isn’t possible and requiring weekly testing. Nonetheless, the governor and state lawmakers blocked these testing policies, forcing schools to opt for mask requirements for all students in leu of testing unvaccinated students.

Universities in states like Florida and Texas, notorious for their lax COVID-19 restrictions, face challenges in keeping their students safe while following restrictions on vaccination requirements and mask mandates. In their COVID-19 policy, the University of South Florida uses language like “we expect” all students and faculty to wear masks and “we strongly urge” all members to get fully vaccinated. This is the extent of the restrictions Florida universities can require, as the Florida Governor signed a bill in May of 2021 barring schools, government entities and businesses from asking for proof of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Several universities in states where vaccine mandates are prohibited, including Stenson University and the University of Arizona, have stated that they would seriously consider changing their own policies if the legal system changed. These schools worry that a potential outbreak could overwhelm their current mitigation strategies, forcing them to close their doors in response.

Finding a balance

With cases continuing to fluctuate across the country, should schools be able to continue to add more restrictions on top of mandatory vaccination? Where is the line drawn? These are questions that students and professors begin to ask themselves as they attempt to continue their journey through higher education.

Depending on the state, public colleges and universities are relatively limited in the actions they take, as their policies must mirror that of the state legislature. Next year’s application cycle should be closely watched to determine how each side of the spectrum fares. It appears that the schools that “overregulate” in an attempt to protect students, mitigate risks of shutting down once again, or simply follow state mandates have become less desirable for college students, especially those who are vaccinated. This may be a cause for concern, as students may opt for the schools who cannot legally mandate vaccination, despite their desire to do so.  Although unlikely, federal regulation may be one way to “level the playing field” for these schools.