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Can colleges and universities require a COVID-19 vaccine?

Colleges nationwide are divided on whether to require vaccinations for the coronavirus.

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Before your student returns to campus in the fall, they may be considering rolling up their sleeve to get the COVID-19 shot. Some colleges are requiring students to get their vaccine, but what about those here in Memphis?  

“Private colleges certainly can. There’s no constitutional bar on them doing anything of the nature,” said University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy. “There’s no law against it, but even public colleges can as well.”  

Mulroy said the answer is yes.   

“If the government can require the citizenry at large to get vaccinated, then certainly public colleges can require students as a condition of matriculating at that institution to get vaccinated as well,” said Mulroy.   

Universities like Rutgers and Cornell have told students they must get vaccinated before returning to campus next fall. The decision comes as more colleges shift back from remote to in-person learning.  Here locally, colleges like LeMoyne-Owen, Southwest Community College, and Rhodes are leaving the choice to students and encouraging vaccinations. Christian Brothers University and the University of Memphis have not announced their plans.  

“It would seem like the same kinds of health and safety rationale that would support mandatory immunization for other diseases like mumps and measles and rubella would also apply with COVID-19,” said the professor.  

Mulroy said there might be some litigation over colleges requiring vaccines but doubts they will be successful. There also could be waivers for students who can't get vaccinated who still want to attend in person. 

“If they can show uniquely they have particular health risks associated with the vaccine,” said Mulroy. “Or if they have sincere religious convictions against vaccination.”

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