by James A. Bacon
In stark contrast to the University of Virginia, James Madison University, and the College of William & Mary, the Virginia Community College System board has decided not to require students to be vaccinated in order to attend classes in the fall.
“I believe it is in the best interests of our faculty, staff, and students to encourage everyone to get their COVID-19 vaccine,” said Chancellor Glenn Dubois in a prepared statement today. “However, we will not require an individual to be vaccinated to attend or to work at one of our colleges.”
Community colleges find themselves in a different situation than the four-year residential colleges. First, as Dubois said, community colleges don’t have residence halls. Second, they lack the public health infrastructure such as hospitals and clinics that make it feasible to support densely populated on-campus living arrangements, including the creation and protection of personal student health data like vaccination records. Third, Dubois said that mandating proof of vaccination might create an “unintended barrier” to student enrollment.
Still, the community colleges’ decision could be seen as an implicit rebuke to four-year colleges that are mandating vaccinations.
When I queried Jeffrey Kraus, assistant vice chancellor for strategic communications, he stressed that the community colleges and four-year colleges face different situations. He cited guidance from the Centers for Disease control, the Governor’s Office, and the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management (DHRM).
The four-year colleges get the same guidance.
What counts as a “congregate setting?” According to the CDC and the Governor’s emergency order, fully vaccinated people do not have to wear masks in most indoor settings — except on public transit, in health care facilities, and in congregate settings. The Virginia Department of Health defines “congregate settings” as places “where a number of people reside, meet or gather in close proximity for either a limited or extended period of time. Examples of congregate settings include homeless shelters, group homes, prisons, detention centers, schools and workplaces.”
Presumably, that covers college dormitories. But many college students live off campus. At the University of Virginia, only first-year students are required to live in dormitories. Thousands of students and graduate students live off campus in houses, townhouses, small apartment buildings and other dwellings that may not meet the definition of “congregate settings.”
Parents of students living off-grounds might legitimately wonder why the mandate applies to their children, who by virtue of their age are already low-risk to begin with.
Medical privacy rights. Student privacy rights create another tricky issue. Four-year college officials may mandate vaccinations, but it’s not clear if they have the legal right to ask students if they have been vaccinated.
According to DHRM, “Agencies will not be asking employees about their vaccination status at this time. While employers are allowed to do so, asking for vaccination status is sensitive to many and can also lead to legal liabilities that agency leaders may not be prepared to address.” That guidance applies to state employees, however, not students.
Parents of university students have raised the privacy issue for students, who enjoy certain protections under HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). According to this line of argumentation, ascertaining whether or not students are vaccinated represents a violation of their medical privacy.
That is essentially the case that several conservative student organizations are making at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “We believe it should be a personal and private choice — not the government, not the state,” said Sara Razi, a Rutgers political science major quoted here. “No one should be making this decision for you — except yourself.”
Public health justification. Neither is it clear, with COVID-19 spread dramatically slowing, that there is a compelling public health reason to violate privacy protections. Nor is it self-evident that students are any less safe in college dormitories than they would be living at home, hanging out at bars, and doing whatever college-age students do.
A Jefferson Council colleague, Walter Smith, asked UVa President Jim Ryan what the scientific rationale was for the mandate. Ryan did not respond. However Rector James Murray did. He told Smith that the decision was made upon “advice from doctors, infectious disease specialists and public health experts from the UVA Medical School and Health System.”
Smith has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to see that advice. He has been told the University will respond by June 2… unless it needs more time.
Bacon’s bottom line: I trust the vaccines, and I urge everyone to get vaccinated as I have. But I don’t presume to impose my personal convictions upon others who may have a different moral or medical calculus.