ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Vaccine mandates: Another way

This editorial was originally published July 1 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

As colleges and universities prepare for a fall semester of in-person classes and the return of extracurricular activities and events, some still are weighing the option of requiring students and staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Already, more than 500 institutions nationwide have made the decision that a vaccine will be required to return to campus.

Given what has transpired over the past 18 months, institutions of higher learning should want to do everything possible to limit any outbreaks of COVID-19 that could once again disrupt learning and student life. And while a vaccine requirement seems the most obvious way to move forward in a safe environment, it overlooks the fact that individuals have the right to refuse a vaccine. In this country, citizens have the right to be wrong.

There are options that should be explored.

Most schools that have adopted a vaccine requirement have added exceptions for those opposed for medical or religious reasons. An exception should likewise be available to those who do not want a vaccine — for whatever reason — but who still want to attend school.

Although vaccination is by far the best way to limit the spread of COVID-19, there can be sincere concerns about the vaccines that were authorized by the federal Food and Drug Administration through an emergency order. There is a workable way around the problem and one that has been in place since the start of the pandemic: testing.

Those who wish to attend classes but do not want the vaccine should be offered the option of undergoing regular testing — at their own expense — and agree to adhere to safety protocols the school has established. Those protocols could include wearing a mask and quarantining for a period if the student tests positive.

Most of the more than 4,000 degree-granting schools are taking the right approach in encouraging students to get vaccinated, even setting up clinics on campus and scheduling them through the summer. Many are smartly offering incentives for vaccination, ranging from cash and university swag to state-run lotteries such as in Ohio, where students can qualify to win a four-year scholarship.

Educating students about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines and encouraging inoculation are the best ways to douse vaccine hesitancy. Schools that have announced a requirement have seen protests on campus and push-back from some state lawmakers. Hundreds of students staged a protest last month at Rutgers over the vaccine requirement, as did students, parents and staff at Indiana University during a board of trustees meeting.

Although schools may have the legal authority to impose a vaccine requirement, it would make more sense to acknowledge that there are some who are simply opposed. Schools should establish safety protocols built around ongoing and incentivized testing of students.

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