The University of California announced Thursday that it is mandating the coronavirus vaccines for students and faculty members — making it the largest public university system to do so, according to the Los Angeles Times.
On the same day, the University of Hawaii system nixed its vaccine mandate for the fall term, citing surveys it administered that showed the vast majority of students and employees had already received or planned to get the shots.
The two announcements highlight the debate raging nationwide about whether colleges can — or should — require the vaccines even though they haven’t yet received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Nationwide, more than 580 campuses are requiring at least some students or employees to get the coronavirus vaccine, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. But the publication notes that its count includes schools whose mandates depend on at least one of the vaccines receiving full FDA approval.
All three coronavirus vaccines available in the U.S. have only received emergency use authorization, which allows them to be administered quicker than is typical during a health crisis. College policies requiring students and employees to get vaccines that are approved under EUA are in uncharted legal territory and could draw lawsuits. But some legal scholars think they are unlikely to succeed.
Pfizer applied for full FDA approval in early May and Moderna followed suit in June, but it could take months before the agency reaches a decision. The FDA is aiming to decide by January on full approval for the Pfizer vaccine, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said Friday.
Decisions by California’s three public higher education systems highlight the different approaches colleges are taking as the fall nears.
The University of California system said in April that it would only mandate the vaccine once it received full FDA approval. But it changed those plans in light of strong student support for a mandate and medical studies showing the shots’ safety and efficacy, the Los Angeles Times reported. The California State University system, on the other hand, is still waiting on full approval before it issues a mandate.
In May, the general counsel for California Community Colleges, which oversees 116 two-year schools, wrote a legal memo saying that community college districts have the authority to impose a requirement. But doing so could invite legal challenges that the districts are “facilitating unlawful human experimentation,” the counsel cautioned.
The University of Hawaii is one example of college officials pulling back a mandate that was contingent on full approval.
“When we announced that all students would be required to be vaccinated to participate on campus, it was with the condition, and frankly the expectation, that at least one vaccine would be fully approved by the FDA by the fall semester,” University of Hawaii President David Lassner said in the announcement. He also noted that the University of California and the California State University originally took this stance.
Vaccine mandates aren’t an option for some colleges, however. At least eight states have passed laws that bar colleges from mandating coronavirus vaccines or proof of vaccination, The Wall Street Journal reported.
In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine on Wednesday signed a bill banning public schools and colleges from mandating vaccines that haven’t received full FDA approval.
But Cleveland State University is still requiring residential students to be vaccinated for the fall term beginning Aug. 21, according to The Associated Press. It says the move doesn’t violate Ohio’s new law because it doesn’t take effect until October.