There is a feeling of cautious optimism in registering for fall 2021 classes. After over a year of Zoom school, the possibility of in-person classes this fall is beyond exciting. However, in order to have a close-to-normal fall semester, students must be vaccinated against COVID-19. That is why the University of Michigan should follow the lead of other colleges and universities and require all students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus in the fall.
There is already a growing list of colleges and universities that have announced they will require students to receive the vaccine before being allowed back to campus in the fall. These schools include public universities, such as Oakland University right here in Michigan, and Rutgers, a fellow Big Ten school. Each of these schools have offered similar rationales, explaining that having all students vaccinated will help to ensure a safe return to campus life.
The University should follow in the footsteps of these schools and institute a similar requirement for the 2021 school year and beyond. Public health officials have been clear: The only way to return to normal life is by achieving herd immunity through widespread vaccination among those who can safely receive the vaccine. Therefore, if we want a safe and fulfilling fall semester, it is critical that the school enforces a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy.
As we have seen this past year, COVID-19 spreads quickly and easily on college campuses. Over 6,000 people affiliated with the University have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 8, 2020. Further, large gatherings and communal housing in the campus community have spurred outbreaks that have impacted the greater Washtenaw County area.
This year has also shown us that many students will not follow the most responsible steps when it comes to public health. Therefore, a gentle suggestion from the University for students to get vaccinated will not be sufficient. We need a decisive action from our institution’s administration — get vaccinated or take school online.
Any vaccine requirement would of course bring some exceptions. Many states require schools to grant exemptions for medical and religious beliefs and offer other reasonable accommodations. Additionally, the school will still have online classes available in the fall, so students who refuse to get the vaccine and cannot provide a valid reason can simply take their classes online, which is a reasonable accommodation.
One concern about mandatory vaccines would be that some students might not have access to the vaccine before September. It is true that, although the vaccine rollout has been moving very rapidly, some communities have been systemically left behind by the vaccine rollout, and the recent occurrences of complications and subsequent pause in the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may further slow down the rollout.
That said, it is likely that by the end of the summer, there will be greater access to the vaccine. President Joe Biden has announced that by the end of April, 90% of Americans will have a vaccine less than five miles from their homes. This greater availability combined with the increasing vaccine production we have seen will make it much easier for students to get vaccinated.
Even with these programs, it is likely that there will be some students who will be unable to be vaccinated by September. Michigan could easily address this issue by offering vaccines to students who were unable to be vaccinated over the summer. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine only requires 21 days between the two shots, meaning that the few students who were unable to receive their shots over the summer would be covered by October. The University has been increasing student vaccinations over the past few weeks, so it is likely that they would have the capacity to vaccinate remaining students right at the start of the fall semester.
Some critics of mandatory vaccines say that students should not have to release medical records because it would violate medical privacy rules, but students already release other medical and vaccination information to the University when they begin their academic careers. Additionally, the University required students living in the residence halls this year to receive their flu shot.
The COVID-19 vaccine is our best chance to return to an in-person semester. The University has a chance now to ensure students receive the vaccine by making it mandatory for students starting this fall. With more vaccines, we have a greater chance of returning to the campus that we love, complete with in-person classes, game days and graduation ceremonies.
Isabelle Schindler is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: This article has been updated to state that Oakland University is a public university. An earlier version said it was private.