Higher education workers will likely be asked to get vaccinated or take tests every week to prevent the spread of COVID.
As part of his “Exiting the Pandemic Plan,” President Joe Biden said on Thursday that large private companies must require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or provide proof of negative tests every week. This general guideline can also apply to the thousands of higher education institutions that have not yet implemented these requirements for faculty, staff and administrators.
Under the new rule, any business with 100 or more employees must comply with a rule implemented and overseen by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). While the administration’s guidelines are heavily focused on companies and K-12 schools, colleges will likely have to follow suit, even in states where there are vaccine passport bans and there has been reluctance. to implement them.
The president’s action comes at a time when COVID-19 rates are rising nationwide due to the delta variant and hospitalizations have increased because too few young adults have received doses of Pfizer / BioNTech vaccines (Comirnaty), Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. This includes a large student population and some employees who can put themselves or others at risk.
“We have been patient, but our patience is running out and your refusal has cost us all,” Biden said at a press conference Thursday. “While America is in much better shape than it was seven months ago when I took office… we are in a tough time, and this could go on for some time.”
Several colleges and universities that have reopened for the fall semester have already seen epidemics on their campuses, even where vaccination rates have reached 90%. Some professors where mitigation measures are more relaxed have expressed concerns about the lack of protection in their institutions, especially in conservative states. While it’s likely there will be legal challenges to Biden’s mandate, institutions now have the backing of strong federal guidelines as well as the arm of OSHA to make more solid decisions.
“I think [college] presidents could say today: “There was an executive decree issued by the president yesterday that employers with more than 100 employees must mandate vaccines or perform weekly tests for those who are presumed to be vaccinated.” We are implementing this now because federal law requires us to do so, ”says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC & U). “I think they would be protected. Then it goes to litigation. But we saw in Indiana, where they made vaccinations mandatory and won their legal challenge in court, and the Supreme Court refused to hear that case. I believe that institutions, especially if their decisions are based on their mission and a commitment to the well-being of faculty, students, staff and community members, are here on solid foundations.
Over 1,000 colleges and universities across the country already have mandates in place, most for students, faculty and staff. That leaves about 3,000 who still do not have increased safeguards in place. So far, many have relied on encouraging people to adhere to mask and distancing guidelines and to get vaccinated. Pasquerella says it’s time for these institutions to step up and join others who have done so.
“The AAC&U has been pretty clear in saying that colleges should mandate vaccines,” she says. “For us, it’s a question of fairness. The President made it clear in his comments that COVID-19 has had a disparate impact on communities of color. Of all the things students need to worry about today, they shouldn’t have to worry about getting sick because the student next to them hasn’t been vaccinated.
“We have also seen the moral distress experienced by the leaders of state institutions that have banned the obligation of vaccines and masks,” adds Pasquerella. “They feel helpless. So here is an opportunity now to say federal law will prevail over state law and do what they think is right. “
Biden’s six-point plan targets 80 million Americans who have yet to receive vaccines. Part of its mission is to get as many adults vaccinated – through companies across the country – to further protect populations 12 and under who are not yet eligible. These students, he said, should be able to attend K-12 schools in person safely. He also wants to increase testing and require masking in high traffic areas and provide additional assistance to people with COVID.
One of the other notable line items that could have a direct impact on colleges and universities is the requirement that major entertainment venues impose vaccines or entrance tests. Over the past weekend, many colleges had full stadiums for football games, with crowds largely unmasked and not socially distanced.
It is not known how all of the requirements will be implemented or what costs companies or institutions will incur to allow testing of individuals.
“We would like the administration to further clarify the implications of [the requirements], but its mandate was quite broad, ”says Pasquerella. “He said you have to force vaccinations or you have to have weekly tests. And then the question becomes: who bears the cost of these tests? I would be tempted, if I were an institution that had the mandate, to say: “If you refuse to be vaccinated, unless you have religious or health exemptions, then you will bear the cost. And I know that some institutions have done it when it comes to students.
Regardless of how it is executed, Pasquerella says the new requirements are welcome.
“For me, there is a larger ethical issue about what we owe each other as citizens in a democracy,” says Pasquerella. “Sometimes we violate individual rights for the public good. Most importantly, we need to understand this as we examine the commemoration around 9/11 (and the restrictions and policies imposed on citizens passing through airports, for example). “