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American, Georgetown universities join growing list of campuses to require coronavirus vaccines

The D.C. universities have asked returning to students to get vaccinated. Maryland’s public university system may follow suit.

Camila Gutierrez, a junior at Florida International University, receives a coronavirus vaccine at the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami on Thursday. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

American and Georgetown universities joined a growing list of universities this week in requiring students who return in the fall to get a coronavirus vaccine.

As vaccine eligibility expands and schools come closer to reopening for the fall, at least a dozen campuses have shared plans to mandate vaccines. Some, including Georgetown and AU, are also considering requirements for faculty and staff.

But the announcements have raised questions over the validity of such requirements, as well as access. International students, particularly in countries where coronavirus vaccines are not widely available, could run into challenges securing inoculations, college leaders acknowledge.

Despite the potential obstacles, the announcement at American was met with excitement, said Eric Brock, a junior and student body president. He said students have encouraged the university to enact a mandate.

“Personally, I feel safe coming back to campus knowing that those vaccines are going to be required,” said Brock, who has been taking classes remotely from his home in Phoenix. “I couldn’t be happier.”

AU president Sylvia M. Burwell, who served as health and human services secretary under President Barack Obama, said Wednesday that vaccines will be an important piece of the school’s plan to reopen campus in the fall.

“While public health measures like face coverings and physical distancing will likely be part of our fall operations, robust vaccination in our community will enable us to expand activities and interactions that enrich the educational, research, and social experiences that are fundamental to AU,” Burwell wrote in a statement.

Like other schools that have unveiled vaccine requirements, AU will make exceptions for students with medical or religious reasons, Burwell said.

As states expand vaccine eligibility, universities make a push to inoculate all students

While schools are expecting students to be inoculated for the fall, many students in other countries do not have access to vaccines that have been authorized in the U.S., Burwell said. Officials are determining how to handle those cases, she said.

International students who have not yet received vaccines will be directed toward clinics in the U.S. when they arrive in the fall, according to Burwell.

Georgetown shared similar guidance with international students, according to a message sent to the community this week.

Vaccine requirements have gained popularity in recent weeks as access in the United States has widened. Every adult is expected to be eligible for a shot by Monday.

Universities are hopeful that students will secure their doses by the time school starts in late summer.

Eric Feldman, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School, said he believes schools have legal standing should their mandates be challenged.

“It may not be unambiguous in the legal text that universities can require the vaccination of students, but I think we have many, many years of precedent,” Feldman said.

A student sued the University of California in 1925, claiming he met all the school’s attendance requirements, except for the smallpox vaccination mandate. A judge sided with the university. A 2015 California law that required vaccines for schoolchildren withstood legal challenges as well.

Feldman called the pushback about the coronavirus vaccines’ emergency authorization “overblown.”

“The FDA didn’t provide emergency-use authorization at the last minute without having a very robust set of data that demonstrates the safety and efficacy of the vaccine,” Feldman said. “In terms of emergency-use authorization, the universities are on pretty safe ground.”

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More schools are expected to join AU and Georgetown. Maryland’s attorney general recently advised that the state’s university system can legally mandate vaccinations, according to a letter sent to state Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), whose district includes the University of Maryland at College Park.

A decision has yet to be announced but Jay A. Perman, the system’s chancellor, told the Board of Regents on Friday that he supports the notion of requiring returning students to have vaccines.

He cited difficulties enforcing social distancing in residence halls, and said students risk spreading the virus through their interactions in classes, during extracurricular activities and at gatherings.

“I’ve already said that widespread vaccination is the way to resume some semblance of normal operations this fall,” Perman said.