At Minnesota Colleges, Covid Vaccination Requirements Remain in Limbo
As Minnesota’s universities prepare for a return to in-person instruction this fall, they’re facing one important question: Will Covid-19 vaccinations be required for students and staff?
It’s a tricky question, but there is plenty of legal precedent for vaccine requirements in schools. For instance, under current Minnesota law, all elementary school students must have received a number of customary vaccinations to attend, with a limited set of exceptions for medical reasons or religious beliefs.
Still, it’s worth noting that the three Covid vaccines currently available in the U.S. have not been formally approved by the Food and Drug Administration; each one only has “emergency use authorization.” As a result, some Minnesota higher ed leaders have been reluctant to issue any formal requirements quite yet. Joan Gabel, president of the University of Minnesota, recently told her school’s student newspaper that “while the vaccine is still under emergency use authorization, we would not make it mandatory.”
But the vaccines’ current status with the FDA isn’t likely to pose a major issue for schools, legal experts say.
“Some people have interpreted [emergency use authorization] as restricting colleges and universities from requiring vaccinations,” said Ann Huntrods, a partner in the Minneapolis office of law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP. “But I think you can likely require them as long as you have the exceptions for medical reasons and religious reasons.”
She pointed to a recent issue brief on the topic from the American Council on Education, a trade group for the higher ed community. “Even though [Covid-19] vaccines are currently being offered only under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization, the legal right of institutions to require Covid-19 vaccination for students seems likely to be upheld as vaccine availability increases,” the council wrote in the brief. “In this regard, mandated Covid-19 vaccinations may align with existing flu vaccine requirements for students on a number of campuses from coast to coast.”
So far, just two Minnesota colleges—Macalester and Carleton—have said that their students, faculty, and staff must be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 for the fall semester. As with standard vaccinations, both schools will allow a narrow number of exemptions. In a letter to students and staff, Carleton president Steve Poskanzer said his school would consider exemptions “in accordance with applicable state and federal law.”
At Macalester, students and employees must provide proof of their Covid vaccination status by Aug. 2.
“Put simply, our students and employees deserve to live and work in an environment where public health measures help keep us all safer,” Macalester president Suzanne Rivera said in a statement late last week.
Meanwhile, some schools in the state appear to be waiting for the vaccines’ full FDA approval before making any formal requirements. In an email, a U of M spokeswoman said that “setting any sort of requirement at this time would be premature. … We trust that the legal and regulatory landscape will become more well developed in the coming months as the vaccines become more accessible.”
Other schools are likely waiting to see how their peer institutions respond, too. But with the fall semester only a few months away, there’s little time left for schools to deliberate.
“In my view, we’re going to see more colleges and universities making a decision one way or another over the next few weeks,” said Huntrods. “And the reason that’s going to happen sooner than later is that if an institution decides to require vaccines, they’ll want to allow enough time to for students to get fully immunized before they come to campus.”
[Editor’s note: On May 17, Mitchell Hamline School of Law announced that all faculty, staff, and students must be fully vaccinated before returning for the fall semester.]