Jay A. Perman, chancellor of the state system, told the Board of Regents a vaccine requirement is needed to reopen safely.
“Last week, I said that mandating a covid vaccine is a reasonable and necessary means of preventing spread of the disease,” Perman said. “I’ll go one better: Mandating a covid vaccine is the most effective strategy we have, especially as we try to reach herd immunity. It’s not just one tool in this fight; it’s our best tool, and one I believe is critical to our safe return to campus.”
The Maryland system’s move signaled the potential emergence of a divide among public universities: those that will require coronavirus vaccinations and those that will merely encourage them. That divide, if it occurs, may follow familiar social and political patterns.
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) said he supports coronavirus vaccination efforts, but he criticized the Maryland system’s new mandate.
“Having received significant federal and state government covid relief funding, I would hope the University System of Maryland took positive steps to boost vaccine confidence to convince students, faculty and the broader academic community to be voluntarily vaccinated,” Harris said in a statement. “But coercion is no substitute for informed consent in this case.”
So far, it appears that no flagship universities in states that President Donald Trump carried last year in his reelection bid have announced a vaccine mandate.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking the issue, listed as of Friday several state systems and public universities with coronavirus vaccine mandates for the fall. Among them: Rutgers University in New Jersey, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of California System and the California State University System. The two California systems said they are planning mandates on the condition that any of the coronavirus vaccinations secure full approval from the Food and Drug Administration and that there are no supply shortages.
The mandate movement is growing faster in the private sector. The Chronicle listed more than 60 private colleges and universities with mandates, including most of the Ivy League. An exception: Harvard University has not issued a mandate and said its leaders are “actively discussing” the possibility.
At the moment, many public universities are still sorting through legal issues, including the University of Virginia.
“We also recognize that many in our community are wondering whether we will take the step that other institutions have and require members of our community to be fully vaccinated before the start of the fall term,” the U-Va. provost, Liz Magill, and chief operating officer, J.J. Davis, wrote Thursday in a message to the campus. “We are working with medical experts and legal advisers on that important question and will make an announcement at a future date, as soon as that process is complete.”
The College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., said it must follow state guidance. “When the Commonwealth determines that a COVID-19 vaccine should become one of the inoculations required to attend Virginia public universities, William & Mary will welcome the rule change,” Brian Whitson, a spokesman for the public university, wrote in an email.
Morgan State University, a public historically Black institution outside of the Maryland system, will require returning students and employees to be vaccinated by Aug. 1, officials announced Friday.
The coronavirus has taken a particularly hard toll on Black Americans, a combination of health disparities and unequal access to medical care. David Wilson, president of Morgan State, said the virus has affected many of his students personally.
“A part of our calculus was that we did not want to be a superspreader in the communities that are most impacted by the virus,” Wilson said, adding that students and professors told him they would not feel comfortable returning if large swaths of the campus were unvaccinated.
Wilson said inviting more than 10,000 students, faculty and staff back to the campus without requiring vaccinations would put the predominantly Black neighborhoods around the university “in a vulnerable position.”
Logistical questions could arise at schools that reopen in the fall with a significant portion of the population unvaccinated.
Will those students be assigned roommates who have been vaccinated? Will they be required to submit to coronavirus testing more often? Will professors raise qualms about being in the same classroom or laboratory with them? How will colleges track who’s vaccinated and who’s not?
This is why safety protocols — mask-wearing, hand washing and social distancing — are still important, said Deborah Beck, chief health officer and vice president for health and well-being at the University of South Carolina. And in the absence of mandates, schools should encourage students to get vaccinated and educate them about the benefits.
No matter their stance on requirements, nearly all higher education leaders firmly support coronavirus vaccination.
“With vaccines, there’s science, and there’s data,” said Peter G. McDonough, vice president and general counsel of the American Council on Education, which represents college and university presidents. “And it’s pretty darn strong.”
McDonough said that college presidents are considering carefully the legal and political ramifications of the choices they make. Some will feel free to take a strong position in favor of mandates. Some will not.
What they don’t want, McDonough said, is to get bogged down in a debate that hinders vaccinations. By pressing for a requirement in some places that would be skeptical of such a move, college leaders might perceive that they’re fighting what McDonough called “the wrong war.”
Whatever the means, McDonough said, the goal is promoting public health: “It’s about comfort, confidence and as many shots in arms as possible.”