Read on to learn how colleges are handling COVID-19 vaccinations as the fall semester draws closer.
When the pandemic spread across the U.S. in spring 2020, colleges closed en masse, emptied dorms and classrooms, and shifted to remote instruction on the fly. Online learning continued – with mixed results – for many colleges into the fall. And those that did bring students back to campus limited capacity in residence halls, classrooms and common areas; some installed Plexiglas barriers and distributed masks and other personal protective equipment.
"Campuses really want to get back to normal operations as quickly as possible," says Chris Marsicano, an education professor and founding director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College in North Carolina.
Now the prospect of effective COVID-19 vaccines raises hope for a return to the traditional college experience, which means in-person lectures, study groups in the library, social gatherings and attendance at campus athletic events.
"If you can ensure a highly vaccinated community, you can get back to a lot of those things safely," says Dr. Preeti Malani, a professor and chief health officer at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor.
Malani adds that vaccines offer protection beyond an individual level, helping keep entire communities safe. Given the data and the millions of Americans already immunized, she describes the existing COVID-19 vaccines as "safe and effective" and encourages students to think of others when considering the shot.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, complications and deaths after getting COVID-19 immunizations – referred to as "adverse events" – are rare in the U.S., where more than 259 million doses of coronavirus vaccines were administered between Dec. 14, 2020, and May 10, 2021.
As with much of American higher education, how colleges approach the issue of coronavirus vaccines varies.
Colleges generally fall into four categories: requiring vaccines; offering students incentives to get immunized voluntarily; not requiring the shots; and adopting a wait-and-see approach. The majority of schools are in the last category, according to Marsicano, who has studied institutional coronavirus responses as part of his work at the College Crisis Initiative research lab.
However, the picture should become clearer as the fall semester nears, especially if the vaccines are granted full FDA approval, Marsicano says. Pfizer and BioNTech recently applied for full approval of their coronavirus vaccine and others will follow shortly, experts predict.
"Once these vaccines receive full FDA approval, colleges and universities should have no legal issue with requiring that vaccine of their students, at least in principle, at the federal level," Marsicano says.
COVID-19 vaccines are currently under emergency use authorization, a status that some experts say makes vaccine mandates a legal gray area. But with full FDA approval, immunization requirements will be par for the course considering that colleges already require students to provide proof of various other vaccinations.
"I'm a full believer that (colleges) asking students to be vaccinated prior to coming to campus or when they show up on campus is prudent, is safe, is reasonable and well within their rubric of running the campus," says Sheldon H. Jacobson, a computer science professor specializing in public health data at the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign.
Jacobson adds that existing immunization requirements against mumps, measles and other infections ultimately provide legal precedent for mandates, and a fully approved COVID-19 vaccine would be no different.
But declaring vaccine mandates has invited political backlash as some states move against such measures, with some lawmakers skeptical of the efficacy of what they view as hastily developed vaccines, and others viewing requirements as undermining personal freedom. In Florida, for example, a new law bars colleges from requiring a coronavirus vaccine as a condition for enrollment. That legal barrier prompted some schools to back away from previously announced plans to require vaccinations.
Additionally, some colleges are carving out medical or religious exemptions for unvaccinated students. Students who are fully online may also be exempt from vaccine requirements at some colleges.