School vaccine wars
University vaccine mandates stoke concerns about emergency health powers
Robin Yates said her 21-year-old son made his own decision about whether to be vaccinated before starting his senior year at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University. But she and other Wake Forest parents are concerned about the pressure put on students to get a COVID-19 shot. “There are kids that are wondering what is that going to look like when I return to school,” said the Florida resident. “They know what it was like to never really be free to be seen without a mask … to be completely severed from any sense of community,” she said, so in respect to getting the vaccine, “they may feel like they don’t have a choice.”
Wake Forest is among more than 600 public and private universities requiring students to get a vaccine as a condition of enrollment for the fall semester, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Most provide medical and religious exemptions, but the process for requesting one can be frustrating. And some students say the ramifications—such as masking, social distancing, and weekly testing—are demeaning. Yates said most students are unwilling to make themselves a target of criticism by voicing their concerns about vaccines.
But not all are so reticent. Two undergraduate students at the Los Angeles-area Loyola Marymount University filed a federal lawsuit on July 24 claiming the university’s treatment of vaccine-exempted students creates a “campus-wide apartheid.” Ryan Khanthaphixay and Riley O’Neal accuse the school of unconstitutionally requiring unvaccinated students to live in separate dorms, wear masks, social distance, submit to health surveillance, and undergo weekly testing while vaccinated peers can move freely.
The students are seeking a court order blocking the Catholic university’s mandate, claiming the differential treatment violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. They contend that the school has no basis for treating them differently when students exempt from measles, mumps, or rubella vaccines are not subject to any similar requirements.
“These two students are not alone,” said their attorney, Robert Tyler. “There are many other students being harmed by LMU’s discriminatory policy, but they are afraid to have a light shined on them because they do not want to suffer even greater retaliation by the university.”
Conflict between vaccine mandates and liberty concerns echoes the early pandemic tension between churches’ worship services and health officials’ emergency gathering bans. A federal court upheld Indiana University’s vaccine mandate in a July 18 order focusing on the delicate balance between constitutional rights and health concerns. It concluded that the eight students filing the action were not entitled to an order barring the university from implementing the vaccine policy.
The court rejected the argument that the school’s treatment of vaccine-exempt students was discriminatory. “On this record, the court finds no merit in the students’ contention that wearing masks essentially labels them with a ‘scarlet letter’ that targets them for religious bullying,” concluded U.S. District Judge Damon Leichty. “A student wearing a mask may well just be precautious in light of COVID-19 variants or because of immunosuppressing conditions.”