Virginia public colleges can mandate vaccines, attorney general says

Published 7:18 pm Friday, May 21, 2021

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By Hunter Britt

Capital News Service

Virginia colleges are beginning to announce mandatory fall COVID-19 vaccine policies following the state attorney general’s opinion that higher education institutes can require the vaccine.

Virginia public colleges and universities can mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for faculty and students returning to campus this fall, Attorney General Mark Herring stated in late April.

“Virginia’s college and university students deserve the chance to go to classes in-person and take advantage of all that their schools have to offer, but over the past year we have seen numerous COVID outbreaks on school campuses, so we must make sure that they are doing so with the health and safety of their peers and communities in mind,” Herring stated.

School leaders questioned the legality of mandating the COVID-19 vaccine because the vaccine is currently authorized for emergency use. That means people must be given the choice to take it and be informed of the consequences if they don’t, Lisa Lee, professor of public health at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, told Capital News Service before Herring issued his statement.

Currently, Virginia colleges request documentation that a student was vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, poliomyelitis, measles and mumps.

At least three Virginia-based private universities will require the vaccine for students and employees returning to campus in the fall. Hampton, Mary Baldwin and Virginia Wesleyan universities updated their policies mandating the vaccine. Hampton made its decision weeks before the attorney general issued the opinion.

Michael Porter, a spokesperson for Richmond-based Virginia Commonwealth University, stated in an email that VCU still does not require the COVID-19 vaccine for returning students. The university is “reviewing the Attorney General’s guidance” as it plans for the upcoming semester.

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville recently released a statement acknowledging Herring’s opinion but has not yet updated its policy.

Virginia Tech is still deliberating whether to require the COVID-19 vaccine, university spokesperson Mark Owczarski stated in an email. Once a decision is made, the university will communicate it to students and staff.

The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg recently told students and staff to expect an update on mandatory vaccination in mid-May. The college encouraged students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated if possible.

George Mason University in Fairfax is considering whether to require the vaccine, the university said in a mid-April statement posted before Herring’s announcement. Mason encouraged students to get the vaccine and ask their health care provider if they had questions.

Bri Bittenbender, a criminal justice major at VCU, said Virginia schools need to enforce the COVID-19 vaccine if things are ever going to return to normal.

“I think it could provide a level of safety for students going back to in-person classes,” she said. “But if the schools don’t enforce it, then we’re stuck where we are now.”

Bittenbender is not alone, as many college students across Virginia feel the same way. Isabella Chalfant, a William & Mary student majoring in environmental law and art history, said aversion to the vaccine from a political standpoint is “imbecilic.”

“The most important thing about the vaccine is being able to protect the people you love,” she said. “When I finally got the email to make my appointment, I cried because it meant that I didn’t have to be scared to live my life anymore.”

Chalfant said she prioritized the vaccine to protect her mother who is considered high risk.

“I can also protect my family, because my mom has underlying conditions,” she said. “It is extremely important for me and for my family to protect her.”

While there are many college students across Virginia who support requiring the vaccine, there are others who are uncertain. Kaitlyn Whitehead, a health sciences major at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, said giving colleges leeway to make the vaccine mandatory is “not a positive thing.”

“I believe that, just like anything else, that there should be a choice,” she said.

Whitehead said since the flu vaccine isn’t mandated at Virginia colleges, then the COVID-19 vaccine shouldn’t be either. She said the flu and COVID-19 both kill many people, but only the latter vaccine is being mandated.

Emily Porter, a student majoring in media studies and Chinese at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said there is support for the vaccine among U.Va. students, but some students oppose it.

“The student population is largely liberal, though I would say there are contrarians and conservatives who might have an issue,” she said. “As a proportion of the student population, the latter is much less. I would also guess that the majority of the faculty and staff would also be in support of it.”

Emily Porter supports the vaccine and believes it to be a “wonderful feat of science.”

“There will definitely have to be some developments, especially with the new strains and everything like that,” she said. “But overall, I think it’s incredible, and I had no problem getting it.”