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Virginia’s public universities drop coronavirus vaccine mandates after attorney general’s opinion

U-Va., Va. Tech, other schools shift course after Republican AG says they were not legally authorized to require students to get shots

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville in September 2020. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)
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Midway through the school year, Virginia’s public universities have rolled back requirements for students to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, after an opinion last week from the state’s new Republican attorney general, Jason S. Miyares, concluding they are not legally authorized to impose such a mandate.

The abrupt policy shift, announced at one university after another from Friday through Tuesday, marked one of the nation’s most unusual and sweeping reversals on what has become a key issue for campus operations during the pandemic. It also undid requirements at several campuses for students to get a coronavirus vaccine booster shot. What impact that will have on public health campaigns to fight the omicron variant of the virus, and other potential variants, remains to be seen.

Virginia Tech said it would no longer make coronavirus vaccination a condition of student enrollment. The University of Virginia and William & Mary said they would no longer threaten to disenroll students who do not have a booster shot this semester.

Also rescinding vaccine mandates through statements or revisions to their websites were the University of Mary Washington and Christopher Newport, James Madison, Longwood, Norfolk State, Old Dominion, Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia State universities.

The developments marked a sea change in pandemic policy in a state where until recently vaccination requirements had been the norm for students on public university campuses, with the vast majority complying. The changes are especially striking because they come in the middle of the academic year, as universities are seeking to reestablish operating routines amid the ongoing public health challenge.

Will students get coronavirus vaccines? Some colleges don’t keep track.

On Friday, Miyares reversed an opinion that his predecessor, Mark R. Herring (D), had issued last year in support of campus vaccination mandates. Miyares defeated Herring in November’s state election and took office Jan. 15.

The attorney general does not have direct authority over the operations of public universities. But his opinions carry weight, and he oversees legal counsel for the schools. In his opinion, Miyares found, that state legislators could pass measures allowing public colleges and universities to mandate coronavirus vaccines, but that has not happened. Absent such legislative action, the attorney general said, public universities were not empowered to require students to get coronavirus vaccinations.

Separately, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who also took office Jan. 15, has ordered state agencies, including public universities, to stop requiring employees to be vaccinated against the virus.

University leaders say the practical impact, in the short term, will be minimal because the vast majority of students are already vaccinated.

U-Va. President Jim Ryan and other top officials at the school declared the shift a “moot” issue “at least for the time being.” They said more than 99 percent of students had already met deadlines to get vaccinated and boosted or to obtain a medical or religious exemption from those mandates. As of Sunday, U-Va. officials said, 97 percent of students eligible for a booster shot had received one.

“Because we have such a small number of students who have not yet received the booster, we decided early last week — based on the advice of our student affairs team — that we will not disenroll students who have not yet received their booster but will continue to encourage them,” the U-Va. officials said in a statement. The flagship university in Charlottesville has about 25,000 students.

U-Va. disenrolls unvaccinated students ahead of fall semester

At Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, officials sought to emphasize that the elimination of the vaccine and booster requirements would not deter the pursuit of their goals. “We want to encourage everyone in our community to be vaccinated, get a booster dose as soon as you’re eligible, and report any updates to your vaccination status to the university,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said in a statement.

Still, the policy shift was sudden and significant. On Monday afternoon, just before the Sands statement appeared, a Virginia Tech webpage could be found with the assertion that “mandating vaccination and a booster is an important step toward retaining in-person activities and events.” The page was later updated to reflect the change.

Virginia Tech officials said 96 percent of their 37,000 students are vaccinated. A much lower share — about 20,200, or roughly 55 percent — have reported receiving a booster shot.

Rates of vaccine booster uptake vary widely from school to school. William & Mary said more than 90 percent of its eligible students had received a booster shot.

Asked about the effect of the Miyares opinion on campus vaccination campaigns, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, Victoria LaCivita, said in a statement: “The COVID-19 vaccine is a critical tool in our fight against COVID-19, and it could save your life. The Attorney General has been vaccinated, has received the booster, and he encourages everyone to get the vaccine.”

At George Mason University, in Northern Virginia, officials rolled back their student vaccine mandate hours after Miyares issued his opinion Friday. Now, the university of more than 38,000 students is strongly encouraging vaccination.

“This is clearly not a ruling we wanted,” GMU President Gregory Washington said Monday. But Washington said officials were expecting it. “We clearly would have loved to see the attorney general and the governor support what has been working and working well,” he said.

About 96 percent of the university’s students are vaccinated, and Washington said he does not expect the change to have a dramatic effect. “We have a very high vaccination rate, and that was one of the reasons why we didn’t push back too hard on the attorney general’s opinion,” Washington said. Future students, however, will not be required to be vaccinated before they come to campus next semester.

What will happen in the summer and fall terms remains to be seen. U-Va. officials said in their statement: “As for the need for any additional rounds of vaccines or boosters, our hope is that this will not be necessary for the foreseeable future as the virus continues to evolve and more and more people develop immunity. But we cannot predict the future.”

The pandemic’s impact on education

The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5. To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools. American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure.

Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules.

DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.