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Lawsuits, health regulations and student safety: Colleges weigh whether to require COVID-19 vaccines

Published: Apr. 30, 2021 at 3:13 AM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - For Virginia students, the college checklist this year may include more than laptops and backpacks. Proof of a COVID-19 vaccine could be just as important.

Already, three Virginia schools - Mary Baldwin, Virginia Wesleyan and Hampton University - will require the shots, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has been tracking requirements nationwide.

Dozens more schools are still weighing their decisions, which will affect tens of thousands of college-bound Virginians.

“The idea of mandating the vaccine currently is a little bit controversial,” said Michael Jones, Vice President of marketing at the University of Lynchburg.

As of now, U of L is telling students they’ll face a choice this fall: get vaccinated or get tested.

“If you come back and you’ve not been vaccinated, you will be subject to routine testing,” said Jones.

But that plan isn’t set in stone. Guidance from federal and state governments, local COVID-19 numbers, and more, could all change the equation.

“There are legal ramifications,” said Jones. “It’s still experimental.”

It’s a similar story at Virginia Tech. University spokesperson Mark Owczarski says considering how much COVID-19 guidance has changed in the last year, Tech wants to take its time.

“We really need to take in information see where we are, collect the data, and then at the right time, make those very important decisions,” said Owczarski.

Colleges did get one key piece of guidance this week. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring released an opinion saying colleges and universities “may condition in-person attendance on receipt of an approved COVID-19 vaccine.”

“It’s a critical piece of information because there are legal elements to this decision,” said Owczarski.

But just because colleges are allowed to doesn’t mean they will.

Liberty University has given a definite ‘no.’ A spokesperson for LU wrote in a statement that Liberty “is not requiring the vaccine,” but “encourages our students…to avail themselves of all options for good health and safety. "

That advice isn’t limited to Liberty. Colleges across Central and Southwest Virginia stressed to WDBJ7 they’re doing what they can to get their students vaccinated. Virginia Tech and the University of Lynchburg have hosted on-campus vaccine clinics.

So has Averett University. In a statement, spokesperson Cassie Jones wrote Averettstrongly urges our campus community to consider getting vaccinated, as we are a residential university with people living and working in a congregate setting.”

Ferrum College also confirmed it’s encouraging students to get the vaccine, but it won’t be mandated “at this time.”

Radford University and Roanoke College both said their institutions have yet to make a final decision on whether to require the vaccine.

At Randolph College, spokesperson Brenda Edson wrote the college “has not yet made a decision,” as officials continue to weigh the “legal and ethical issues” of requiring a vaccine “since the vaccinations still only have emergency approval.”

Sweet Brier College spokesperson Dana Poleski wrote “We’ve not yet discussed mandatory vaccines and are waiting for recommendations from the VA Department of Health and VA Department of Education.”

As of Thursday, 181 colleges and universities nationwide are requiring the vaccine, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s count. More schools are likely to make a final decision as the summer gets closer.

Whatever colleges and universities decide, COVID-19 precautions will still remain part of the equation. According to Michael Jones, schools won’t be throwing out their safety playbooks any time soon.

“No,” he said. “We can’t.”

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