30 January 2021
People involved in higher education are asking: Will universities require students to get the coronavirus vaccine before they come back to school?
Many universities already request health information from new students. Most, especially those from the U.S., already receive vaccines as children.
Schools like the University of Wisconsin, for example, do not require students to be vaccinated for many diseases, but strongly recommends them. Vaccines are recommended for diseases like hepatitis and measles. A form asks students to check with their doctors and "make arrangements to get any missing immunizations before you come to campus."
As the coronavirus vaccine becomes more available, students may someday be required to prove that they have received the coronavirus vaccine before coming to school. But public health experts say it is unlikely universities will be able to require it this fall.
The University of Michigan is another large university, with over 40,000 students. VOA asked whether the school will require a coronavirus vaccine in the near future. A University of Michigan spokesman answered by email: "At this time, the university does not anticipate requiring a COVID vaccine for faculty, staff or students," he wrote.
Rupali Limaye is scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. She is an expert in vaccines and public health. She studies how people make decisions about vaccines.
Limaye said it is likely universities will enter the 2021-2022 school year still using other methods "to control the spread" of the virus, even if some students and professors have received the vaccine.
These methods include wearing a face covering, virus testing, social distancing and keeping groups of students together in small groups.
Limaye said the most likely situation this fall is that some students will be vaccinated, but most social distancing rules will remain in place.
Universities, however, will probably urge students to take classes in person. Limaye said the coronavirus health crisis has made universities think hard about the best ways to teach students. While many schools have deployed distance learning in 2020 and 2021, the majority of them believe the best way to teach is in person.
Most adults, she said, can effectively work from home. But for college students, an important part of the educational experience is the social interaction and cooperation that come on campus. So, many universities want to find a way to reopen.
Will campus life return to normal?
Some people are hopeful that college campuses will be "back to normal" in September 2021 because vaccines are becoming more available. Limaye said that is closer to a dream than reality.
That is because not enough people on college campuses will receive the vaccine by the start of the coming school year. Some older teachers and professors will have been vaccinated. But college-age students have not yet been prioritized by most public health organizations.
For this reason, herd immunity may not be reachable seven months from now. The term herd immunity describes a situation when enough people in a population are resistant to a disease that it cannot spread.
Limaye said states with smaller populations, like Kentucky, are doing a better job of providing vaccines. Colleges and universities in those states might be able to welcome students back to campus with fewer rules in place.
In larger states, like California, it has been harder to provide people with vaccines. As a result, on-campus social distancing rules may remain in place for a longer time.
In addition, universities may not be able to require a coronavirus vaccine. That is because the vaccines are only being given to the public under emergency-use rules.
Limaye said that her school, Johns Hopkins, recently required employees who are part of the medical campus who meet with patients to receive a flu shot each year.
"Could we go down that route," she asked, about possibly requiring the vaccine. "It is a tricky subject."
She said it is more likely that schools will try to increase in-person attendance by requiring face coverings for a long time to come.
Hallie Busta is a reporter for Higher Ed Dive, a website that covers higher education. She said colleges understand student vaccination will be important to getting back to normal.
"The leaders of colleges are also aware the vaccine is not going to be widely available to students for some time. I've seen estimates of that being like, late spring or early summer. So I think they're hopeful, but also realistic about some of the limitations on how soon college students can get vaccinated...and then, in turn, how that's going to impact their plans for the spring term and even into the fall."
The American College Health Association works on student health policy. Busta said the organization has asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to consider recommending that colleges vaccinate students before they leave for the summer.
The organization notes that doing so would prevent college students, who may not have symptoms of the virus, from infecting people at home. Busta said the U.S. government is only making recommendations on how vaccines should be provided to the public. It is each state's responsibility to take action. So, some states could decide to place top importance on their university communities, which include students.
"That's something we've been asking as well," Busta said. "Is there a reason to prioritize a certain group?"
Students and university staff members may choose to receive a vaccine as soon as it is available. But, before student life can return to normal, people who live near college campuses need to get the vaccine, too.
"Even if students are enthusiastic about getting the vaccine, and are able to get it, it also matters for colleges whether people in the communities that surround their campuses are also getting vaccinated and are able to, and that could be a factor as well that schools need to consider."
The future for international students
International students are part of nearly every university community in the U.S. Will those students be required to be vaccinated before they return to campus?
Both Busta and Limaye say it is an important question that has not yet been fully answered. Limaye said she values her international students at the Johns Hopkins University.
"We pride ourselves on a diverse student body," she said. Her concern is whether international students who are in one or two-year graduate programs will get the experience they would like.
She said she is looking forward to finding out more on rules for international students coming back.
"This will continue to be a bit of an evolving situation," she said.
Busta said international students were already starting to consider universities in other countries before the coronavirus health crisis. Schools in places like Australia, Canada and Britain are offering competition. In addition, some policies have made it harder for students from other countries to study in the U.S.
"The virus is definitely impacting students' ability to enter the country...but there are other factors at play as well," she said.
I'm Dan Friedell.
Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.
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Words in This Story
recommend- v. to say that (someone or something) is good and deserves to be chosen
anticipate- v. to think of (something that will or might happen in the future)
faculty –n. the group of teachers at a school or college
staff –n. employees of an organization
prioritize- v. to organize (things) so that the most important thing is done or dealt with first
route –n. a way of reaching a goal
impact –v. to have an influence on an outcome or decision
symptom- n. a change in the body or mind which indicates that a disease is present
enthusiastic- adj. feeling or showing strong excitement about something : filled with or marked by enthusiasm
diverse- adj. made up of people or things that are different from each other
evolve- v. to change or develop slowly often into a better, more complex, or more advanced state
factor –n. something that helps to produce or influence a result