Pushback against ‘vaccine passports’ puts colleges in a quandary

By: - April 20, 2021 12:30 am

Photo from the U.S. Department of Defense.

WASHINGTON — Florida’s Nova Southeastern University joined a small group of U.S. colleges on April 1, when the private research university announced that it would require all students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus this fall.

In a message posted on the university’s website, NSU’s president and CEO, Dr. George Hanbury, wrote that the vaccination requirement “will enable us to return to a ‘partial pre-pandemic’ environment.”

But the next day, Gov. Ron DeSantis scrambled those plans. The Republican governor issued an executive order barring any state or local government agency from issuing, or any private business from requiring, a “vaccine passport” — a broad term being used to describe documentation of an individual’s COVID-19 vaccination status.

The order left NSU in limbo over whether it can proceed with plans to require vaccinations. The South Florida school isn’t alone in its uncertainty over how to balance politics and public health concerns as colleges and universities that have already weathered a difficult year look ahead to the fall semester.

Along with NSU, at least 33 colleges across the country have announced plans to require a COVID-19 shot for the fall semester, according to a tally by the Chronicle of Higher Education. That list includes large universities like Rutgers and Cornell, as well as smaller schools like Iowa’s Grinnell College, in states with both Democratic and Republican governors.

Other colleges so far have sought to encourage, rather than mandate, that students receive a vaccine, with varying degrees of success.

Universities have hosted vaccination clinics on their campuses, but also have struggled to find doses. Many are racing to vaccinate students — most in age groups that only recently became eligible — before the spring semester ends.

There’s legal precedent suggesting that colleges — which already require students to receive other vaccinations — are within their bounds to require a COVID-19 shot, allowing for limited exemptions. But there are also a number of reasons that schools might not require the new vaccine, including hesitancy among certain groups and questions about availability for international students.

Meanwhile, the federal government has offered little guidance to states and colleges navigating increasingly controversial terrain.

At Nova Southeastern, college officials hadn’t yet detailed how exactly the requirement would work when DeSantis issued his executive order, and school officials said they are reviewing it.

“Our priority has always been to save lives, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, to deliver the best educational experience, and to protect our students and employees to the best of our ability,” Hanbury said in an April 8 statement.

Partisan divide on vaccine proof

The possibility that Americans will be required to prove they’ve received a COVID-19 vaccine in order to return to their office, school, or entertainment venues has sparked a politically polarizing response.

Conservatives in D.C. and state capitals have seized on the idea of vaccination passports, blasting them as violating health privacy.

Several governors, including DeSantis and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, either have banned vaccine passports or vowed to support bills doing so. (DeSantis’ office did not respond to questions about whether his ban was intended to prohibit colleges from vaccination requirements.)

Ohio lawmakers have proposed a bill seeking to restrict governments from issuing vaccine passports.

Meanwhile, Democratic-run New York has forged ahead with a free digital app to prove you’ve been vaccinated or recently received a negative coronavirus test result. Designed by IBM, New York’s Excelsior Pass gives a special code that businesses can scan, allowing people to leave their paper vaccination cards at home.

Democratic officials in Hawaii, a state that relies deeply on tourists and business owners feeling safe about in-person dining and entertainment, also have said they’re considering a passport system.

President Joe Biden’s administration has largely sidestepped the issue, saying they believe it’s not the government’s role to create a centralized database on which Americans have and have not been vaccinated.

Federal officials have deferred to the range of private-sector companies that are attempting to build vaccination apps, advising only that the apps must ensure data is kept secure and that there are non-digital options available so no one is excluded from traveling or entering businesses.

That’s offered little support for colleges weighing a requirement, or clarity on the type of exemptions that they might need to allow.

States and colleges on their own

The lack of guidance has left states — and the colleges within those states — on their own to consider both public health and personal freedoms.

In Colorado, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ administration is not looking at creating a state-run passport system.

But his spokeswoman, Shelby Wieman, also said in an emailed statement that state officials are considering how to make immunization records “available digitally to Coloradans,” an option that would make it easier for those who lose their vaccination card to replace that record.

As for colleges, Wieman said Polis “has made returning to in-person education a priority, and is actively discussing how to ensure herd immunity on college campuses this fall.”

Colorado’s Fort Lewis College is among the handful of U.S. colleges that already have announced a vaccination requirement for students this fall.

For faculty and staff, vaccinations are “strongly encouraged,” and school officials say that “many” have already received at least one shot.

“COVID-19 has made it very clear just how impactful and necessary it is for us to have an educational experience in person, and vaccines are our way of ensuring that we can be together for a normal fall semester,” Tom Stritikus, president of Fort Lewis College, wrote in a letter posted online about the requirement.

Students at the school are instructed to upload a copy of their vaccination card to a secure document portal or the Fort Lewis app.

It’s not yet clear if the policies at Fort Lewis will be the exception or the rule when the fall semester begins.

The American College Health Association was working on guidance to campuses about vaccine mandates when federal officials last week paused use of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine — which had been seen as an ideal option allowing colleges to quickly vaccinate students before they depart for the summer.

The organization intends to offer a statement on vaccination requirements within the next week or so, said Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force. She said schools are on a tight timeline to make decisions on their rules for the fall, and she credited the schools that have done so already.

“I do think it’s very important for colleges to be clear, consistent and communicate what their requirements are for the fall to families as soon as possible,” Taylor said. Students will need notice to make vaccination appointments or determine if they still plan to attend.

Characterizing the debate over vaccine passports as “emotionally charged,” Taylor said schools have used electronic health records to track vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella in case of an outbreak requiring that unvaccinated students be contacted.

Decisions on mandating COVID-19 shots will be made at the state level for public schools, while the private schools are able to decide for themselves.

Colleges and their legal teams will make decisions internally about vaccine requirements, Taylor said. They’ll have to weigh any state regulations, the availability of doses both domestically and internationally and timing challenges for those who get the two-shot versions, as well as work on dispelling rumors about the vaccines.

According to ACHA-National College Health Assessment data gathered last fall, before any COVID-19 vaccines had been federally authorized, 77% of undergraduate and graduate students said they were very or somewhat likely to get vaccinated, and 23% were somewhat unlikely or very unlikely to be vaccinated.

Options other than a mandate

Colleges already have outlined a range of options for how they’ll handle vaccination mandates.

For example, Cleveland State University recently announced that vaccinations will be required for all students living on campus.

In a message to students, CSU President Harlan Sands said the school will “do our best to ensure all faculty, staff and students are vaccinated,” adding that school officials will “continue to adjust plans based upon what transpires with COVID-19 spread in the coming months.”

Florida’s Saint Leo University has reached out beyond just enrolled students, inviting both students and members of their households to be vaccinated on campus.

In an issue brief for college officials, the American Council on Education offered some approaches to consider, including encouraging students who opt out of a vaccine to enroll in online classes instead.

Another idea? Telling students that a COVID-19 vaccine is required, but instead of requiring a copy of their vaccine cards, allowing students to simply agree as part of a broader honor code that they have in fact complied.



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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Ohio Capital Journal. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.