GRAND FORKS, N.D. — As a small but growing number of universities across the country plan to require their students to get vaccinated for COVID-19 prior to the fall semester, it appears most students in the Dakotas and Minnesota won’t be required to get the vaccine.
More than a dozen universities, mostly on the East Coast, are requiring students to get vaccinated before they can attend classes in the fall.
Most of the institutions that have announced vaccine requirements — including Duke, Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins, Brown and Cornell — are private schools.
Thus far, public institutions have been more hesitant to make that call.
For public universities, it’s a tough line to toe because university systems must follow state policy, Billie Jo Lorius, spokeswoman for the North Dakota University System, noted.
“Private institutions will have more flexibility in determining their policies of this type,” Lorius said.
The questions at the center of most discussions about vaccination requirements for students are does state law allow it, and could the university face a lawsuit?
University systems in North Dakota and South Dakota say they will not be requiring students to get the COVID-19 vaccine, citing the inability to do so under state law.
Nearly all colleges and universities across the country and in the region require students to have vaccinations for certain diseases, such as measles, mumps and rubella. North Dakota law also has a list of vaccines schools can require before children begin kindergarten, but no law in the Dakotas has been passed to add COVID-19 to that list.
Lorius said the system would follow state law, since it is a public entity and no state law mandates COVID-19 vaccinations.
“This still has to do with the legislative authority to require vaccines for admittance to public K-12; if the vaccine is not on that list or specifically authorized through state health officer or executive action, NDUS does not have the authority to make that requirement,” she said.
Institutions may encourage vaccinations and provide opportunities for students to get vaccinated if they wish, she said.
Janelle Toman, communications director for the South Dakota Board of Regents, said such a requirement would not be a campus-by-campus decision within the public system, she said.
“It is either a system decision or a state legislative matter,” she said. “There was no effort to mandate COVID immunizations in the legislative session just ended, nor is there any plan to do so by the Board of Regents.”
Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota system, with campuses in Crookston, Duluth, Morris, Rochester and the Twin Cities, is still weighing its options, Jake Ricker, director of public relations, said.
“At this time, the university continues to actively track and follow federal and state laws and guidance regarding the use, administration and approval of vaccines,” he said. “We trust that the legal and regulatory landscape will become more developed in the coming months as the vaccines become more accessible.”
Minnesota State, which has more than 50 campuses across the state including in East Grand Forks, Bemidji and Moorhead, plans to follow guidance from the state and the Minnesota Department of Health. At present, Minnesota is not requiring vaccinations.
“We are, however, strongly encouraging our employees and students to get vaccinated,” Doug Anderson, director of communications, said.
“For those who simply don’t want to, the fact is, there are lots of other options for them, for their education,” he said, adding he wanted to keep the campus, located in New Brunswick, N.J., as safe as possible.
Most private schools in the region, including University of Jamestown and Concordia College, say they are still weighing their options for the fall semester. Representatives from both schools say they are not currently planning to require vaccines for the next school year.
“Concordia is encouraging students, faculty and staff to get vaccinations if they are able,” Amy Kelly, spokeswoman for Concordia College, said in an email. “At this time, we are not requiring vaccinations. Concordia is still in the planning process for fall and a determination regarding vaccinations hasn’t been made.”
Another potential issue with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate comes with its emergency use authorization and a question of whether public employers can require employees to get a vaccine authorized under that process. At least two lawsuits have been filed in the country that argue that employers cannot mandate vaccines only approved as “emergency use.”