July 15, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a host of ethical and legal questions that have left education leaders and policymakers across the nation scrambling to create policies and procedures that direct public actions. One such ethical dilemma is whether a COVID-19 vaccine should be required for in-person instruction. When The Hunt Institute first explored vaccine requirements, attention was focused on how specific institutions of higher education (IHEs) made decisions to require students to receive a COVID-19 vaccine before returning to campus. However, as more state governments have become involved in this decision-making process, some states passed laws and regulations superseding decisions of IHEs. This brief aims to provide an overview of state policies related to vaccine requirements and how they will affect both K-12 and postsecondary institutions as states and schools make plans for in-person learning during the 2021-22 academic year.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, all 50 states required specific immunizations, such as Hepatitis B, Measles, Mumps, and Rubella, and Whooping Cough as part of their K-12 and/or public IHE school entry requirements. While these policies differed slightly from state to state, the most significant difference was which categories of exemptions a state would allow. Although all state policies included medical exemptions, 44 (and the District of Columbia) also allowed religious exemptions for K-12 students. Further, 15 states permitted parents/guardians to refuse required immunizations for their students on philosophical grounds. The National Conference of State Legislatures has created a full map tracking state immunization exemption laws prior to the pandemic, which can be found here.
Prior to March 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, most state policy discussions regarding vaccination requirements were focused on eliminating philosophical and religious exemptions to increase the herd immunity of schools and communities at the K-12 level. This was because certain populations, such as newborns and individuals with compromised immune systems, cannot always be vaccinated. Herd immunity, also known as community immunity, is when a sufficient proportion of the population is immune to an infectious disease, making the spread of the disease from person to person unlikely and protecting those without the vaccine.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the conversation away from exemptions and brought vaccine requirements to the forefront of public discourse. Access to COVID-19 vaccines has continued to expand, with current recommendations from the CDC encouraging individuals ages 12 and older to receive the vaccination. Scientific experts argue that a high vaccination rate across the country is necessary to move the country out of the pandemic and protect against virus variants, such as the Delta variant which is now the prominent COVID-19 strain in the United States.
As COVID-19 vaccinations became more available, education systems, governments, and private organizations began to discuss whether vaccination should be required for services. The Chronicle of Higher Education shows that more than 500 IHEs implemented COVID-19 vaccination requirements for postsecondary students prior to returning to campus for the 2021-22 school year. These requirements sparked fears of vaccine mandates and the ability to deny services to someone based on their vaccination status, which in turn prompted proactive legislative responses in many states.
Since March 2020, 16 states have passed laws that affect either K-12 and/or postsecondary institutions’ abilities to require a COVID-19 vaccine prior to returning to in-person learning. Ten states have enacted legislation prohibiting vaccination requirements, while seven states have used executive orders to regulate vaccine mandates (Note: Florida has passed both an executive order and state law regarding vaccine requirements). Most laws apply to students, faculty, and staff across both K-12 and postsecondary institutions, but two states (Oklahoma and Utah) have vaccination requirement bans that apply solely to students. One state (Arizona) applies their ban exclusively to faculty and staff. Eleven of the states prohibiting vaccination requirements only apply their bans to public entities and entities that receive state funding, and six states apply their vaccination prohibition to both public and private entities. Finally, 14 states’ prohibitions apply across the education continuum from K-12 through higher education, while one state exclusively affects K-12 schools and one state’s ban only covers IHEs.
Of the 16 states that have implemented some form of ban on vaccination requirements, there are four general approaches to the reach of these laws:
Using PowerBI software, The Hunt Institute has created an interactive map that allows users to toggle through the various categories mentioned above to see the types of legislation and executive orders that exist across the United States. Each state also includes a short description of the law currently in place, and The Hunt Institute will continue to update this map as further legislative bills and changes in vaccine requirements become law.
The discussion surrounding COVID-19 vaccinations and vaccination requirements in general has brought to light various considerations and policy implications that are critical to the operations of IHEs. As we continue to move through the COVID-19 pandemic and explore what the future of education might look like, there are several policy implications that educators, school leaders, and lawmakers should keep in mind.