Across the country, over eighty colleges and universities have announced that they are going to require all of their students and staff to take a COVID-19 vaccine as a requirement for joining the campus community this fall. Their numbers include Brown University, Yale University, Duke University, Stanford University, Wesleyan University, Vassar College, Spelman College, Morehouse College, California State University, University of California, Northeastern University, and the University of Notre Dame – to mention only a dozen.
An even larger number of colleges have announced that they have no intention of imposing a vaccine mandate and want to allow students and staff alike the option to make their own choices on this matter. Cleveland State University (CSU) is taking a middle path, requiring that only students who live on campus have to be vaccinated.
Only ten percent of CSU’s 16,000 students actually live on campus. For the 90% who don’t, as well as the faculty and staff, vaccinations will be optional. Optional, but heavily encouraged, as President Harlan Sands does his best to make clear. Speaking for the university, he wants every single member of the CSU community vaccinated – even if he’s not quite ready to impose a comprehensive mandate.
Cleveland State University's Wolstein Center has been hosting one of the area’s largest FEMA vaccine clinics – an 8-week, high-efficiency operation that vaccinated 500 individuals per hour and up to 6,000 people a day. Given that pivotal commitment to the vaccine effort, I would have anticipated that CSU would be one of the first to issue COVID-19 vaccine mandates to their entire staff and student body.
There’s a political element
We shouldn’t be surprised. Across the country, both mask wearing and vaccinations have had strong polarization along partisan lines. The Republican governors of Utah, Texas, Florida, and Montana have already announced banning institutions in their states from mandating proof of vaccines. That doesn’t mean that all colleges in those states are going to comply, but most will be pressured to do so. Those that don’t will face the legislative consequences.
Colleges and universities in other states, particularly Republican-led states seem to be aware that they need to take into account this political dynamic. Ohio voted for Donald Trump in the past two presidential elections as well as for a Republican governor. At the same time, Cleveland is a Democratic enclave in the state, and CSU finds itself in a complicated squeeze. There’s a strong possibility that they had to temper their preference for a vaccine mandate with a need to keep the state’s political climate in mind.
It is noteworthy that almost no other Ohio colleges or universities have joined CSU in even a partial vaccine requirement (with the exception of Kenyon College). Ohio State University, Ohio University, and the University of Cincinnati have already ruled out vaccine mandates for students and employees alike. Six universities are still undecided: Case Western Reserve University, Denison University, University of Dayton, Xavier University, Bowling Green State University, and Wright State University.
For a rough approximation of where the eighty-plus schools with vaccine mandates fall with regard to their state’s political affiliation, you might want to look at the map provided in this article.
The FDA has only approved the COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use
Vaccines are already a part of college life. Hepatitis B, mumps, polio, and rubella vaccines are standard requirements for students on most campuses (with medical and religious exemptions accepted.)
But COVID-19 vaccines have yet to pass the FDA’s standard drug approval process. That approval may come as soon as the fall of 2021, but students are likely to already be on campus when this occurs. Both in the first months of the pandemic and in the fall of 2020 when most campuses tried to resume in-person learning, colleges and universities have been regarded by many as superspreader events. At the University of Notre Dame, 12,607 students were tested at the beginning of the semester, and only nine tested positive. Two weeks later, the seven-day incidence was 3,083.
In the first four months of 2021, over 50 colleges have reported on-campus outbreaks of over 1,000 cases.
Even more problematic is the fact that what happens on campus does not stay on campus. Stanford researcher, Ellen Kuhl, notes: “Strikingly, these local campus outbreaks rapidly spread across the entire county and triggered a peak in new infections in neighboring communities in more than half of the cases.”
Senior Stanford researcher Hannah Lu adds, “The majority of colleges and universities were able to rapidly manage their outbreaks and suppress campus-wide infections, while the neighboring communities were less successful in controlling the spread of the virus.” Clearly, the practices of the college can have a high impact on the non-college community.
That being the case, is there going to be any legal ground to stand on in stating that the vaccines have a legitimate emergency use function on college campuses? Does a responsibility to the larger community beyond the school need to be factored in?
Ninety percent of Cleveland State’s students live off-campus and go back home to private residences every day. They subsequently interact with family members, salespeople, neighbors, and employers. The possibilities for spread from a commuter school seem potentially more difficult to contain than from a small dormitory-based college.
Are students aware of how much impact they can have?
It was pretty difficult to miss the spring break photos of students gone wild from just a few weeks ago. COVID-19 and social distancing seemed to be the last thing on their minds. It’s been a stressful year for all – time to party. Drinking, crowding, and reckless behavior were on full display – just like spring break from any other year.
But this year’s spring break had some serious consequences for the state of Florida. By mid-April, they had 5,177 cases of the newer, deadlier COVID variants, which was six times the rate since mid-March, just a month earlier. Of these cases, 122 wound up in the hospital and 31 have died.
We might never have a full accounting of those variants that were carried back to students’ families and campuses across the country.
How do students feel about vaccine mandates?
Like the American public in general, opinions are going to be quite mixed. A survey of college students this past January indicated that almost three-quarters were prepared to take the vaccine as soon as it’s available. Seventy-eight percent of those attending private colleges felt that their schools had the right to require the vaccine, and 69% of students attending public schools agreed.
Twenty-year-old Noelle Mason from Colorado State University was so worried about catching the virus while living in shared housing, that she chose to live off-campus this past year. “I just want to go to class,” Mason said. “I’m looking forward to being able to see more friends and talk to new people from my classes. I can’t wait to be able to sit in a coffee shop and study. I’m looking forward to things like the homecoming game and bigger events at CSU, too. I think the vaccine requirement is a really good idea.”
The eagerness of millions of students to return full swing to the social interaction of college life is likely to be one of the biggest factors in their vaccination rates.
As of April 19, COVID-19 vaccines are now available to everyone over the age of sixteen. Cleveland State University and a multitude of other schools who are relying on the good judgment of their communities, in lieu of comprehensive mandates, will know by this fall whether they made the right call.