Rutgers University is requiring students attending classes in person this fall to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
It is among the first US universities to make such a mandate as schools begin preparing for a return to campus life after a year of remote or hybrid learning due to the pandemic.
“In support of Rutgers’ commitment to health and safety for all members of its community, the University will be updating its Immunization Requirements for Students to include the COVID-19 vaccine,” Rutgers’ leadership wrote in a message to the university community on Thursday.
“This health policy update means that, with limited exceptions, all students planning to attend in the Fall 2021 semester must be fully vaccinated.”
Students may request an exemption for medical or religious reasons, the university said. Otherwise, proof of vaccination will be required for all students attending in-person classes.
Hoping for a ‘sense of normalcy on campus’
Arielle Dublin, vice president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly, said she supports the school’s decision.
Dublin, a fourth-year student, served on the university’s “restart committee,” comprised of faculty, administrators and students, which made suggestions to Antonio Calcado, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Rutgers.
“I think at the end of the day, the goal is to have students come back and have a sense of normalcy on campus,” Dublin told CNN. “And to really have that sense of normalcy on campus, you need to recognize that we have to take care of our bodies and make sure everyone around us is OK as well.”
Is requiring the vaccine legal?
Universities, like certain employers, may require immunizations, and the Covid-19 vaccine is really no exception, said Renee Mattei Myers, an attorney in Pennsylvania.
“They can mandate it, but they have to have processes in place for exceptions,” Myers said, for example, for medical and religious reasons.
Some experts say it remains a gray area – the US Food and Drug Administration issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for all three of the vaccines now in use in the United States. But that does not mean formal approval.
“From what we know about the vaccines at this point, it’s a very favorable proposition to be vaccinated,” said Dr. Howard Forman, the director and founder of Yale School of Medicine’s MD/MBA program. “But, in keeping with principles of biomedical ethics, you really want to be able to protect the individual choice in the matter as much as possible.”
In its guidance on products that have emergency use authorization, the US Food and Drug Administration says that recipients must be informed that they “have the option to accept or refuse the EUA product and of any consequences of refusing administration of the product.”
The question of whether vaccines with an EUA can be mandated “has never been tested in court, and there are very strong legal arguments against this view” that they are experimental and should not be mandated, Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor of law at the University of California, wrote last month.
“At this point, while there is still legal uncertainty, my view is that the balance of factors supports the ability of employers (or states) to require EUA vaccines,” Reiss wrote. “Courts vary, but my current assessment is that most courts would be inclined to uphold an employer mandate for an EUA COVID-19 vaccine.”
Survey: Many students agree colleges have right to require vaccine
Students overwhelmingly believe that universities and colleges have the right to mandate inoculation, according to a poll by College Pulse, a research company that focuses on colleges and universities, published in January. In a survey of 1,000 students, 71% said “colleges have the right to require students to get vaccinated before returning to campus.”
Hayley Slusser, editor-in-chief of Rutgers’ student-run newspaper, The Daily Targum, called the university’s decision “the right choice.”
Though she hasn’t yet been vaccinated, she said she will when it is available to her.
“Safety is really important,” Slusser, who will be a senior this fall, told CNN. “As somebody who commutes to school and lives with high risk individual, I would feel more comfortable knowing that everyone on campus is vaccinated and we wouldn’t contribute to anyone getting sick on campus (with Covid-19) ever again.”
Nicholas F. LaBelle, president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly, also described the university’s mandate as “the right move.”
“We look forward to not only working with the University administration in meeting this goal, but also in ensuring that vaccine distribution is equitable, efficient, and setting an example for peer institutions,” LaBelle said in a statement.
“Through shared vigilance and unity, Rutgers will return as the beloved community that we have cultivated throughout these tumultuous times and go forth into a brighter tomorrow.”