US colleges divided over requiring student vaccinations

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BOSTON – U.S. colleges hoping for a return to normalcy next fall are weighing how far they should go in urging students to get the COVID-19 vaccine, including whether they should — or legally can — require it.

Universities including Rutgers, Brown, Cornell and Northeastern recently told students they must get vaccinated before returning to campus next fall. They hope to achieve herd immunity on campus, which they say would allow them to loosen spacing restrictions in classrooms and dorms.

But some colleges are leaving the decision to students, and others believe they can't legally require vaccinations. At Virginia Tech, officials determined that they can’t because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only allowed the emergency use of the vaccines and hasn't given them its full approval.

The question looms large as more colleges plan to shift back from remote to in-person instruction. Many schools have launched vaccination blitzes to get students immunized before they leave for the summer. At some schools, the added requirement is meant to encourage holdouts and to build confidence that students and faculty will be safe on campus.

“It takes away any ambiguity about whether individuals should be vaccinated,” said Kenneth Henderson, the chancellor of Northeastern University in Boston. “It also provides a level of confidence for the entire community that we are taking all appropriate measures.”

Northeastern and other colleges requiring shots believe they’re on solid legal ground. It’s not unusual for colleges to require students to be vaccinated for other types of diseases, and a California court last year upheld a flu shot requirement at the University of California system.

But legal scholars say the COVID-19 vaccines' emergency use status moves the issue to a legal gray area that's likely to be challenged in court, and some colleges may take a more cautious approach to avoid litigation.

Harvard Law professor Glenn Cohen, who teaches health law and bioethics, said there's no legal reason colleges wouldn't be allowed to require COVID-19 vaccinations. It makes no difference that the shots haven't been given full approval, he said, noting that many colleges already require students to take coronavirus tests that are approved under the same FDA emergency authorization. But there’s also no federal guidance explicitly permitting vaccination mandates.