Across the country, a growing number of colleges and universities have said vaccinations will be mandatory for the fall of 2021.
Now, hundreds of thousands of students will be required to get the Covid-19 vaccine, whether they want to or not.
For the most part, students will get vaccinated if it means campus life can return to a pre-pandemic “normal” by September. But not everyone feels that way.
Roughly 88% of college students plan to get the coronavirus vaccine and nearly 3 in 4 students believe vaccinations should be mandatory, according to a recent survey of more than 1,000 college students by College Finance.
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However, Jackie Gale, a rising sophomore at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, is not one of them.
For religious reasons, Gale has never been vaccinated. The 19-year-old attended Alabama public schools and received a religious exemption from the Alabama state health department.
The University of Alabama-Birmingham also exempted Gale from its vaccine requirements during the 2020-2021 school year but won’t apply the same exemption for the upcoming year, according to her lawyer.
“If they decide to give her a religious exemption, that will be the end of it,” said Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel for First Liberty Institute, based outside of Dallas. “If not, we will have to communicate with them through a lawsuit.”
“In compliance with applicable law, we do provide religious exemptions for immunization requirements,” a spokeswoman for the school said. The university does require students provide proof of immunization against certain diseases, although there is currently no Covid vaccine mandate for the fall semester.
For those enrolled in school, there are many vaccination requirements already in place to prevent the spread of diseases such as polio, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.
All 50 states have at least some vaccine mandates for students attending public schools and even those attending private schools. In every case, there are medical exemptions and, in some instances, there are religious or philosophical exemptions, as well.
Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, said it will now mandate Covid vaccinations for its 71,000 students.
“Adding Covid-19 vaccination to our student immunization requirements will help provide a safer and more robust college experience for our students,” Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway said in a statement.
“We are committed to creating a safe campus environment in fall 2021, and to support the health and safety for all members of the Rutgers community, the university has updated existing immunization requirements for students to include the Covid-19 vaccine,” a spokesman for the university added.
Sara Razi, a 21-year-old junior at Rutgers, is challenging that requirement.
“I’m not anti-vax, I’m anti-mandate,” she said. “My education should not be restricted based on my personal decision to receive the Covid-19 vaccination.
“Vaccinations are a personal and a private choice and students should have the right to choose whether or not they want to take a vaccine that is experimental,” Razi added. “Therefore, a public institution like Rutgers should not have the right to dictate a student’s personal decisions.”
Razi, who has received other immunizations in the past, said she hasn’t decided yet whether she will get a Covid shot. In the meantime, she will be participating in a rally on campus, protesting the school’s mandate.
The political science major from Freehold, New Jersey, is also a member of Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian group active on nearly 400 college and university campuses, including Rutgers.
Rutgers has said it will grant exemptions, for medical or religious reasons, although requests will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
“There are a lot of people who are hesitant, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to get the vaccinated,” said Brittany Kmush, assistant professor of public health at Syracuse University.
“This pandemic has become so politicized and it’s really unfortunate that health outcomes have been tied to political parties,” she added.
Colleges need to offer information and education so families can have their concerns addressed. “Just the opportunity to listen to people and give them a place to voice their concerns,” Kmush said, “that would be helpful.”