University of Missouri Professor Dawn Heston teaches her Spanish class on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020 in the Arts and Science building on MU's campus.
Like most local colleges, The University of Missouri-Columbia, shown here in Nov. 2020, says it will not require COVID-19 vaccines of students. (Jacob Moscovitch/The Beacon)

Elizabeth Bowman, a freshman at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, was partially vaccinated against COVID-19 as she walked across campus last week. She’s looking forward to getting her scheduled second shot.

She has an autoimmune disease and has felt confined during the pandemic. But the vaccine is a way of returning fully to her favorite activities, she said. 

“I like to travel a lot, so I need to be prepared,” she said.

Her friend Sarah Melvin hasn’t gotten the COVID-19 vaccine and doesn’t plan to.

“I’m not interested,” Melvin said. “I’ve had COVID, and I believe my body’s built up an immunity. I’m masking. I’m social distancing. I’m doing everything right.”

Until now, COVID-19 vaccinations have been optional for college students and employees in the U.S. But as campuses plan widespread reopenings for the fall semester and the Food and Drug Administration edges closer to full approval for one or more of the vaccines beyond their current emergency use authorization, some schools say they’re making vaccinations mandatory.

The decision is fraught with political and ethical implications.

Vaccine resistance in the state capitals

The American College Health Association in late April recommended requiring COVID-19 vaccines for all students who attend classes in person, saying the vaccine was “the most effective way for institutions of higher education to return to a safe, robust on-campus experience for students in fall semester 2021.”

But that recommendation is bound to encounter resistance among some students and elected officials. Although no legislation has passed, lawmakers in both the Missouri and Kansas legislatures this year debated bills that would bar any government-related entities, including state-funded universities, from making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for employees.

We are strongly encouraging everyone — students, faculty and staff — to get a vaccine.”

Christian Basi, spokesman for the University of Missouri System

Rutgers University in New Jersey in early April became the first school to mandate vaccines for students enrolling in the fall. Dozens of colleges and universities around the country have followed. Private universities have been the most likely to issue mandates, but public institutions have also, including entire university systems in California, New York and Colorado. 

In Missouri, only Washington University in St. Louis and Culver-Stockton College in Canton — both private institutions — have announced they are requiring vaccines for the fall semester, according to University Business, a publication for higher education leaders that is providing daily updates on vaccination requirements. 

No schools in Kansas are listed on the University Business tracker.

“The university has not yet determined whether it will require COVID vaccines,” University of Kansas spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson told The Beacon. “At this time, we are strongly encouraging all members of our community, including students, to get vaccinated.”

Ongoing vaccine debate at Avila University

In the Kansas City area, Avila University, a private institution with about 1,400 students, is seriously considering requiring vaccines for students enrolling in classes on campus in the fall, according to Darby Gough, the assistant vice president of student development and success. 

“We’re going back and forth, honestly,” she said.

But last week, a task force working on the reopening of campus for the fall semester recommended to the university’s executive committee that vaccinations be required. A decision could be made this week, a spokesman said.

Any vaccine requirement would include exemptions for health, religious and personal considerations, Gough said. And the university in south Kansas City would work with the Kansas City Health Department to offer vaccinations on campus.

Avila recently surveyed 874 students about whether they had gotten the vaccine, Gough said. Of the 277 students who responded, 190 said they were fully vaccinated or planned to be. A smaller group of 53 students said they did not plan to get a vaccine, and 34 others said they were unsure what they were going to do.

Gough believes a vaccine requirement would motivate students who aren’t necessarily reluctant but who haven’t gotten around to getting their shots. And knowing which students are vaccinated would expedite contact tracing when a COVID-19 case is detected.

“I just want to know so I can manage the rest of campus,” she said.

But Gough acknowledges the privacy concerns that would be raised by a vaccine requirement.

“Obviously it’s a political issue,” she said. “I don’t think anybody can not recognize that.”

Different vaccine perspectives, no mandates at UMKC, Mizzou

In its recommendation in favor of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the American College Health Association noted that most colleges and universities already require immunizations for diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella and meningitis. 

“COVID-19 is a vaccine-preventable illness not unlike those for which vaccines have been required in the past,” the association said.

UMKC student Annie Zheng has gotten her COVID-19 vaccine, but thinks other students should be able to make their own choices. (Dominick Williams/The Beacon)

But in the politically polarized present, vaccine decisions are anything but easy.

“One of the most difficult things leadership needs to decide is how much they’re going to get into something that is very much a personal decision for someone,” said Shane Smeed, interim president of Park University, a private institution that serves about 15,000 students, with about 1,750 of those on its main campus just north of Kansas City in Parkville, Missouri.

After much discussion, Smeed said, Park’s leadership decided to leave the decision up to individual students, faculty and staff. 

That’s what some local students want. One UMKC student, Annie Zheng, said she had reservations about the university requiring fellow students to be vaccinated, even though she’d gotten her one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

“It’s their choice if they want to be vaccinated,” she said.

Zander Glynn, who plays on UMKC’s soccer team, says he wouldn’t object to a COVID vaccine mandate “if that is what it takes to get past this.”
Zander Glynn, who plays on UMKC’s soccer team, says he wouldn’t object to a COVID vaccine mandate “if that is what it takes to get past this.” (Dominick Williams/The Beacon)

Zander Glynn, a member of the soccer team who lives on campus, said he had no objection to a mandate. 

“Personally, if that is what it takes to get past this, I’m OK with it,” he said. 

Stacy Downs, a UMKC spokeswoman, said the university was encouraging students to get vaccinated and had sponsored vaccine events on campus. 

“We are not requiring them at this time,” she said.

Christian Basi, a spokesman for the University of Missouri System, said the Columbia campus was also not contemplating a requirement. 

Good student compliance with masking and social distancing, and low COVID-19 numbers on campus, factored into the decision, Basi said.

According to dashboard information, reported COVID-19 cases on the UMKC and Columbia campuses currently are low. UMKC’s most recent count showed three cases among students and three among faculty and staff. The Columbia campus reported three known active COVID-19 cases among students and four among faculty and staff. 

As recently as a month ago, though, on April 9, Mizzou reported 35 known COVID-19 cases among students on the Columbia campus.

“The medical experts are telling us that requiring vaccines would not be in our best interest,” Basi said. “But we are strongly encouraging everyone — students, faculty and staff — to get a vaccine.”

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Barbara Shelly is a freelance reporter for The Beacon.