After Rutgers University announced it would require students to receive a COVID-19 vaccine to return to campus in the fall, more than a dozen residential colleges followed suit, according to a recent NPR report. Among these colleges are Duke University, University of Notre Dame, Brown University, Cornell University and Northeastern University. Therefore, the question must be asked: Should Villanova also require a COVID-19 vaccine to return to campus? I would argue “yes” to this question.
Residential campuses have proven to be effective breeding grounds for COVID-19. Dorms, off-campus living and parties enable all kinds of viruses to travel quickly through college community populations. For example, James Madison University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and many other higher education institutions made the decision to send college students home due to a rise in positive COVID-19 cases. Villanova has also experienced a surge in cases that has made administrators consider sending students home at the beginning of this semester. This high risk of infection on college campuses necessitates the mandate that all students be vaccinated to ensure the health and safety of the community to include those whose medical exemptions prevent them from being vaccinated. Mandatory vaccination against other diseases has already been implemented at many universities, especially to protect particularly vulnerable students. For example, according to a recent NPR report, in a survey of about 100 four-year institutions, nearly all require at least one vaccine for enrollment (such as the MMR vaccine which protects against measles, mumps and rubella). Evidently, mandatory vaccination already exists at universities due to the high probability of viral spread at these institutions. Why not add the COVID-19 vaccine?
Further, the rapid proliferation of viruses, such as COVID-19, on university campuses does not simply endanger college communities. Viruses generated on college campuses can also quickly impact the surrounding community, as well as families back home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledged this link between higher education institutions and the surrounding community when issuing guidelines for the opening of colleges during the pandemic. The CDC highlighted the importance of universities implementing policies “while adjusting to meet the unique needs and circumstances of the IHE [Institute of Higher Education] and local community.”
For example, the University is located on the Main Line, a highly populated suburban area of Philadelphia. Villanova students shop at the same stores and eat at the same restaurants as Main Line residents. Therefore, an infected Villanova student could easily spread COVID-19 to non-college residents of the larger community.
Additionally, when students go home to visit their families, there is the chance that the student will infect family members and friends around the country. Therefore, requiring vaccination would not only benefit college communities but also the larger local communities as well as families back home.
I understand that not all students feel comfortable receiving the vaccine. However, I do not think this fact should deter the administration from issuing a vaccine mandate. Those with concerns regarding the vaccine for reasons other than medical exemptions (whether that be religious hesitations, philosophical beliefs, etc.) are entitled to their opinions. The University can develop processes for such concerns to be expressed on an individual basis. For example, the University could allow unvaccinated students to continue with online learning opportunities.
According to an American Council on Education issue brief, universities could also consider incentives for students to receive the vaccine, such as discounted athletic competition tickets for family and friends.
However, individual concerns should be addressed on an individual level with the institution. Public health issues need to be addressed at the institutional level.
I think the University has already taken an important step in the right direction by becoming a vaccine distribution site. Now that the vaccine is available to all students, it is important to strategize and implement a public health campaign to promote and relay factual information on the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
These outreach programs could be as simple as signs around campus with quotes from students who have already received the vaccine or posting facts about the vaccine on social media. By requiring that students are vaccinated for the fall 2021 semester, the University would promote the health and safety of its students as well as the broader community, upholding the Catholic Social Teaching principle of the Common Good.