Is it legal to require a COVID-19 vaccine for colleges and schools?

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(WETM/CNBC) — Colleges and universities across the country are starting to require students to get the COVID-19 vaccine in order to return to in-person learning this fall.

Some people are questioning the legality of this requirement. Is it legal to require someone to get a vaccine? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: It is complicated.

Cornell University, Syracuse University, and Ithaca College announced this vaccine mandate amongst others.

Shirley M. Collado, president of Ithaca College, said the expansion of vaccine eligibility will allow for a return to a “pre-pandemic normal”.

“To support a resumption of this IC experience for our students with a significantly reduced risk of infection for all, the college plans to require all students who are attending this fall to be vaccinated,” said Collado. “Medical and religious exemptions will be accommodated, but it is expected that the vast majority of individuals on campus will be vaccinated. Because so many in our community will have received the protection of the vaccine, the risk of infection for our entire community can be greatly diminished.”

Megan Collins, attorney for Welch, Donlon, & Czarples PLLC, explained how this mandate is legal.

“If they do not have a religious or a medical basis for being exempt from the vaccine requirement, they can still fully engage in their education on a remote basis instead of in-person,” said Collins. “So under those parameters, yes I do think that requiring a COVID vaccine is legal for institutions.”

Collins noted that nearly all of the colleges that have implemented this mandate are private.

“Private colleges, just like any private company, have a really wide latitude to adopt whatever policies they see fit,” said Collins. “As long as those policies that they adopt are not discriminatory in nature.”

In terms of public and state-run education systems, Collins says this is in the air.

“I do think that we will see public institutions throughout the country start to implement requirements,” said Collins. “How they are treated in court, I think that is up for debate.”

Collins said the ability to regulate public health is largely left to individual states, not the federal government. But, New York has a history of vaccine requirements.

“Our public health law has required that school-aged children be vaccinated against a number of diseases,” said Collins. “That includes not only public schools, but private schools as well. So there is certainly a basis in New York State to require vaccines for school-aged children. I do think that could be carried over to public colleges and universities as well.”

For elementary and high schools, Collins said local school districts likely will not implement this mandate on their own.

“I think that this will require an amendment to the state public health law to specifically add COVID to the list of vaccines which are required by the state in order for children to begin to attend schools,” said Collins. “I do not think we are going to see local school districts try and do it on their own. Although, they may find ways to try and encourage folks to vaccinate their children because there is certainly a big push for it.”

In the end, Collins said it is about the greater good.

“Every case is individual and it is tough to have a broad sweeping conclusion,” said Collins. “Often times it comes down to the fact that the will of the individual is very important, but the will of the whole to stay healthy and free of disease can often justify requirements that people might not want to enter into on their own.”

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