Maine Colleges Address Whether COVID-19 Vaccine Can or Should Be Required for Students

Colleges and universities in Maine say they are encouraging and recommending students to be vaccinated against coronavirus, but as of now, they will not impose a vaccine mandate

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Colleges and universities across the northeast are considering if and how they should require students to receive COVID-19 vaccines before enrolling in class this fall.

While Rutgers University in New Jersey has received some national attention for saying it would require the shots for fall students, with certain exemptions, a number of Maine schools say that they are recommending or encouraging students to get the vaccines, but will not impose a requirement.

"We're not currently requiring it, because the three vaccines have not received regular approval, but emergency approval," said Dannel Malloy, chancellor of the University of Maine System, during a media appearance in mid-March.

The UMS view is echoed at the University of New England, with school leadership saying it is trying to "persuade" students and staff to get the vaccines, but it does not feel it can mandate the shots because of their FDA emergency-use status.

"Right now, all of the legal advice that we're getting is that that's not even an option," said Dr. James Herbert, the university's president.

"If the FDA does give full approval, then we will seriously consider mandating vaccines for all our employees and our students," Herbert added, saying that an eventual COVID-19 vaccine requirement is not something he is opposed to.

In the interim, Herbert said that UNE would undertake a substantial public service campaign that encourages students and staff to receive the shots, involving "social media, e-mail, posters" and other strategies.

He also explained that the school plans to offer its own vaccine clinics and is "waiting for vaccines from the state to do that."

Asked about university vaccine mandates during a Wednesday interview with NECN and NBC10 Boston, Seth Pearson, an associate at Cooley LLP in Boston, said he believed a university defending a COVID-19 vaccine requirement might be challenging.

"If it were brought to court today, I think it would be a difficult case for the university, defending your stance to use emergency use as the reason you're mandating," he said.

However, Pearson believes that colleges, universities and other entities may be able to impose COVID-19 vaccine requirements with less legal difficulty should the vaccines receive full government approval not just for adults, but for all age groups.

"I think you're going to have to see the CDC develop and change its policies and their recommendations for immunization," he said. "Then you have a stronger case for mandating vaccines."

Pearson also believes a number of cases related to COVID-19 vaccines will end up in the federal court system because they may relate to the constitutionality of vaccine mandates, and some may even reach the United States Supreme Court.

"All that depends on the claim and how it's framed," he explained.

NECN and NBC10 Boston asked Rutgers about its new COVID-19 vaccine policy, which excludes fully-remote or online-only students and allows medical and religious exemptions.

A spokesperson for the school said the university is "comfortable with the legal authority supporting this policy which has been thoroughly reviewed by our Office of General Counsel."

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