Can colleges require students get the COVID-19 vaccine? Must students comply?

Bizar Male

ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. (WKBW) — Starting next week, adults 16 and older will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Colleges are now considering if they will make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for students.

17-year-old Jamal Harris, a senior in high school, said he’s still debating if he’ll take the vaccine.

“I think it’s probably a combination of questions along with I don’t really feel I have to. I can probably get by and be okay,” Harris said.

But he said he wouldn’t be shocked if he’s required to get the vaccine to start college in the fall.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t feel too good about that. It’d be weird. But when you think about it, there are vaccines required to go to high school and whatever. It would kind of be the same thing,” Harris said.

Epidemiologist Dr. John Sellick said as more older people get vaccinated, the disease will shift to younger populations. That’s why younger people need to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“And even though most of them will do well, not all of them will do well. There’s always that change they’re going to spread it to other people who are at higher risk of a bad outcome,” Dr. Sellick said.

Dr. Sellick said whether or not colleges should mandate COVID-19 vaccines is a thorny question. He said it gets complicated with legalities.

“From a purely scientific point of view, from an infectious disease doctor, the answer is yes,” Dr. Sellick said, “Even if it’s not something that’s going to become absolutely mandatory, if we want to keep schools open in the fall and everybody wants to be back in the dorm, and back going to in person classes, getting vaccinated is going to be a big part of that.”

SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras said SUNY schools likely will not make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory.

“The way we’re approaching this is it’s going to be voluntary. As we’ve been opening up and getting more folks eligible, we’ve been pushing very hard to get all of our faculty, our staff, and our students eligible vaccinated. People are getting vaccinated. They don’t need to be mandated. They’re doing it because they want to turn the page on COVID,” Malatras said.

A representative for Niagara University said the university will make the decision on whether or not to require students be vaccinated based on guidance from the state and other authorities.

7 Eyewitness News asked Canisius College and Daemen College if they would require students be vaccinated, so far neither college has responded.

The president of Medaille College said they will decide if students must be vaccinated sometime next week.

“One we’re thinking about how to encourage. We’re pondering how to incentivise. We’re pondering how we would go about enforcing a mandate for vaccine along with understanding what under the law we would be able to do and what students would be able to push back with,” Kenneith Macur, the president of Medaille College, said.

Legal expert Florina Altshiler said a college can legally make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory. But if a college does make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory, legally do students have to comply?

“So if a student wants to be able to attend college in person, but is going to refuse getting a vaccine, a college can refuse that student’s entry. The only argument a student can make is that getting a vaccine would seriously impair their health or is probably likely to cause their death,” Altshiler said.

She said a student would have to prove the vaccine would harm them to be exempt.

“If that student was able to get a physician or a medical expert to support that getting a vaccine would seriously impair their health, then no school can require a student to get a vaccine that would seriously impair their health,” Altshiler said.

Altshiler said it’s questionable if a medical professional would give that opinion.

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