F&M

Signs reminding people to say 6 feet apart are posted on the Franklin & Marshall College campus Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.

Laptop? Check.

Textbooks? Check.

Pens and pencils? Check.

Proof you’ve been inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine?

That’s what the must-have list might look like for college students this fall, especially if local colleges and universities follow a trend beginning to take shape across the country in which schools are requiring students to get vaccinated in order to study in-person.

Universities like Rutgers in New Jersey and Cornell in upstate New York have announced plans to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for students expecting to live and learn on campus this fall.

Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities, including Millersville University, do not intend to require students to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Two of the largest private colleges in Lancaster County, Franklin & Marshall and Elizabethtown, have not ruled it out.

“It seems clear that every college will have to have a discussion and make a decision regarding whether to require the vaccine for in-residence students in the fall,” Franklin & Marshall College spokesman Peter Durantine said. “We are aware that a few institutions have made this decision, but we are not yet at the stage of making this decision. We want to see more about how the vaccine roll out process proceeds.”

Similarly, Elizabethtown spokeswoman Keri Straub said the college has monitoring federal and state guidance related to higher education and vaccinations, but no official plan has been announced yet.

Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Pennsylvania departments of health and education, have not issued recommendations related to vaccinating students.

The lack of reliable guidance, plus issues like vaccine availability, whether students will comply, how to enforce the rule and any potential legal fallout, makes the decision all the more complicated, lawyers who spoke with LNP | LancasterOnline said.

“I think there are a whole host of practical issues,” Andrea M. Kirshenbaum, an employment attorney with the Philadelphia-based law firm Post & Schell, said of requiring vaccines for not only students but employees, which colleges like Nova Southeastern University in Florida have done.

Colleges with vaccine mandates most likely should carve out exceptions for medical and religious reasons, Kirshenbaum said. Rutgers’ policy, for example, has done that. Students studying online are also exempt.

Whether it’s legal to require the vaccine is a tricky question. While it’s common for schools to require students to get vaccines, such as the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccine is currently under emergency approval for the Food and Drug Administration. That puts in a different category. As a result, a school might hesitate to treat it like other inoculations by imposing a requirement.

The CDC has, however, stated a state government or employer could require shots. And many colleges, including those in Lancaster County, have already relied on the emergency authorization to, for example, conduct COVID-19 testing.

Jodi S. Wilenzik, an attorney also from Post & Schell with experience representing institutions of higher education, said there isn’t a clear answer as to whether colleges and universities would be at risk of being sued for mandating COVID-19 vaccines. They might wait for additional guidance from the CDC and others or simply see what other schools decide, she said.

For Millersville University and its 13 sister schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, there won’t be any COVID-19 requirement, spokespeople for Millersville and the state system confirmed.

State system spokesman Dave Pidgeon said that’s because “there’s no enabling legislation that grants publicly owned universities, an agency of the state government, the legal authority to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for students or employees.”

What to Read Next