UC System Creates Largest Vaccine Mandate in Higher Education

CoronavirusNewsUC System

Picture of a student at a laptop with a face mask.
Eli Lawler / The Triton

The University of California (UC) announced that it is considering plans to require students, staff, and faculty to receive a COVID-19 vaccination before returning to campus this fall. This announcement has come  after many other private and public universities across the country declared COVID-19 vaccines as a requirement for Fall 2021 entry.

This proposed policy would require UC personnel and students to be fully vaccinated, if accessing facilities in-person, prior to the start of Fall 2021. This would also apply to contractors working on UC campuses.

Enforcement of the requirement will be delayed until at least one vaccine is widely available and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Though their vaccines are currently authorized for emergency use, Pfizer and Moderna are both currently seeking full FDA approval. Pfizer expects the decision to be made in the second half of 2021. There is legal controversy over whether or not public universities can require the vaccine before it is FDA approved.

This requirement further supports UCSD’s goal of returning to in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year. The University is planning to operate at full capacity starting in the fall.

Students and employees who do not comply with the vaccine requirement will not have access to university facilities or in-person programs unless they have a medical exemption or an approved exception. Exceptions can be granted by an “authorized campus representative” on the basis of ”religious belief, practice, or observance.”  Unvaccinated students will have limited options for course registration and may not attend classes or events in-person.

Those who secure an exemption or exception will be required to adhere to other non-pharmaceutical safety measures including social distancing, mask-wearing, and increased surveillance testing.

Dr. Robert Schooley, one of the leaders of the Return to Learn program and a Professor of Medicine at UCSD, said, “there are relatively few indications for medical exemptions. I would hope [that] the [percent] of vaccinated individuals on campus will settle in above 98%.”

A key hurdle in requiring a vaccine for university students is potentially limited vaccine access and availability for international students who want to return to campus. According to the UC Office of the President (UCOP) press release, “[f]or those who are unable to receive a vaccine prior to campus arrival, student health centers may be able to help find a local resource for vaccination but special protections may be required.”

The Return to Learn committee will work towards reducing logistical barriers to vaccine access as well, according to Dr. Schooley.

With both the UC and the California State University (CSU) systems proposing this policy, the COVID-19 vaccination requirement would be the largest mandate in higher education as both systems have over 1 million members across 33 campuses.

In 2015, the UC system implemented vaccine requirements in response to increased outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. UCSD currently requires students to get several vaccines including the chickenpox; Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR); and a yearly flu shot.

The flu shot became mandatory for students, faculty, and staff in October 2020 after an executive order issued by the UCOP and is in effect until June 30. It remains to be seen whether this requirement will be renewed for the 2021-2022 school year. Students will need a fully updated vaccination record prior to fall, including proof of their vaccination card.

The Triton reached out to Student Health Services (SHS) for comment but received no response.

Many universities nationwide have already made the coronavirus vaccine a requirement, such as Yale, Columbia, University of Denver, Rutgers, Northwestern, and the University of San Diego.

In an interview with KPBS, UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla stated that if UCSD were a private university, he would make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory except for those with religious and medical exemptions.

The UC expects that a final version of the policy will be ready prior to the start of the Fall 2021 term. Specific dates will be communicated by individual campuses, as per their start date.

Students, staff, and faculty are currently eligible to be vaccinated at the Recreation, Intramural and Athletic Complex (RIMAC) on campus. As California has expanded vaccine eligibility to those 16 and older, UCSD announced that students can schedule their vaccine appointments at RIMAC directly and other vaccination stations in San Diego County starting April 15.

Julianna Domingo is an Assistant News Editor for The Triton. Sahana Narayan is the News Editor for The Triton. Kate Zegans is the Managing Editor for The Triton.