Christine Brady Vaccine Pictures

While JMU doesn’t yet require students to get vaccinated to come to campus in the fall, Vass said there’s room for policy change. 

The list of colleges and universities that have announced their intent to require students to show proof of having received a COVID-19 vaccine to return to school in the fall is steadily growing. Rutgers University was the first major public university to do so, according to NPR, and other public institutions have begun to follow suit alongside a host of private, non-state-funded colleges and universities. However, JMU has chosen to go the other way, not requiring students to show proof of being vaccinated against COVID-19 to return to campus for the fall semester.

At JMU, every “JMU Health Update” published since April 1 has read, “If you have not already done so, it is more important than ever for you to pre-register to be vaccinated as soon as possible … Remember, the best vaccine is the first one offered to you. All vaccines are effective in preventing death and severe illness.” 

However, the Health Update published March 5 stated, “Vaccinations are not mandatory and ultimately a decision of each student, faculty and staff member.” And each JMU Health Update published from March 8 through March 24 — with the exception of March 15 and March 16 — stated, “Vaccination is a personal choice; it is not mandatory.” 

The messaging — which some have called contradictory — has led members of the JMU community to question whether students will or will not be required to show proof of having received a COVID-19 vaccine to return to or begin their time at JMU in the fall, and where the decisions are coming from.

A statement provided to The Breeze by Mary-Hope Vass, JMU spokesperson and director of communications, said that at the current moment, JMU has chosen to not require vaccination against COVID-19 for the student body, citing the legal gray area JMU finds itself in with COVID-19 vaccine requirements. However, Vass left room for policy change in the coming months. The statement reads:

“The university strongly encourages all members of the JMU community to get vaccinated but there is no current legal basis to require the COVID-19 vaccine. As federal and state guidance evolves, the university will evaluate the health benefits and potential risks in moving forward. If this does become a requirement, proper communication would be issued to inform the student body of the information.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1905 case “Jacobson v. Massachusetts,” wrote in its opinion that states have the power to uphold mandatory vaccination laws, providing legal precedent for public colleges and universities to require their students to show proof of vaccinations. JMU requires all incoming students to show proof that they’ve received several immunizations, such as those for Tetanus/Diphtheria (Tdap), Hepatitis B and Measles/Mumps/Rubella (MMR). Those vaccinations — and others that are mandated — are all fully authorized for use by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and are required by public higher education institutions under Virginia state law (sec. 43.1-800). 

However, all available vaccines for COVID-19 — those produced by Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) — are currently under “Emergency Use Authorization” (EUA). According to the FDA, “An Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) is a mechanism to facilitate the availability and use of medical countermeasures, including vaccines, during public health emergencies, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.”

The EUA classification for the COVID-19 vaccines leaves JMU in a legal gray area. While there’s significant legal history for the right of public higher education institutions to require fully authorized vaccines, there’s been no precedent set for the ability to require EUA vaccines as a condition for participation in public institutions. 

An issue brief published by the American Council on Education states, “Even though [COVID-19] vaccines are currently being offered only under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization, the legal right of institutions to require COVID-19 vaccination for students seems likely to be upheld as vaccine availability increases.” But, the issue of EUA vaccines in the context of public higher education hasn’t yet been brought before a state or federal judge, leaving no clear precedent. 

JMU’s Faculty Senate, a body dedicated to upholding the interest of JMU’s faculty in policy-making decisions and other areas of university governance, recently passed a resolution calling on university administration to require that all students show proof of vaccination for COVID-19 to return to school in the fall. The resolution allows for certain exemptions, such as religious objections or underlying medical conditions, and acknowledges that any vaccination requirements must comply with state law. 

The resolution’s author, JMU integrated science and technology professor David McGraw, said he believes most JMU faculty members support a vaccine requirement for students to attend JMU in person in the fall. McGraw said the resolution passed with “three quarters at least, a healthy majority,” of the Senate voting in favor.

The resolution states, “The Faculty Senate urges the administration of James Madison University to ensure the safety of the University community by requiring mandatory proof of COVID-19 vaccination as a condition for each student’s return to the campus in the fall of 2021.”

McGraw said he recognized the argument of individual liberty one could make about mandatory vaccinations but that, in his view, in a situation regarding public health, individual liberty shouldn’t outweigh collective public safety.

“Nobody is required to have a vaccination; rather, the requirement is that if you are going to participate in an activity — in this case, coming to college — in which there’s a lot of other people’s lives involved, then that shifts the calculus on individual liberty,” McGraw said. “It’s often said that you don’t have a right to drive, that driving is a privilege, and so we put all kinds of restrictions … You can’t drive while you’re intoxicated, for example, because that would put other people in society at jeopardy.”

McGraw said that during the Faculty Senate meeting in which the resolution was discussed, one member asked a question about why the resolution asks that only students be required to show proof of vaccination, leaving out faculty and employees. That decision, McGraw said, was a move driven by political calculus. If he’d written a requirement for faculty and staff to be vaccinated into the resolution, members of the Senate may have been less inclined to vote for it, both for themselves and for fear of any backlash from colleagues, McGraw said.

JMU’s COVID-19 vaccine frequently asked questions page for employees — including all faculty and staff — says, “Employees are not required to take the vaccine. Choosing to be vaccinated is a personal and voluntary choice of the employee.”

Jessani Collier, the recently elected JMU Student Government Association (SGA) president, said she and the majority of SGA members support a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students to return in the fall. Though she understands that there’ll be exceptions — such as those individuals who have religious or medical exemptions — she said, the public need to get JMU’s population vaccinated is incredibly important and something she’d “love to see.”

“I would love [JMU] to require having that vaccination record,” Collier said. “The majority of SGA, from what I’ve gathered, is in support of having some … record of [COVID-19] vaccines on campus, and to be able to return to campus.”

Collier also said JMU needs to keep up its public push for students to get vaccinated voluntarily. She cited the work of Tim Miller, JMU vice president for student affairs, and others who have been publicly telling students that vaccination is the best choice, saying that JMU needs to make accessibility and education around the COVID-19 vaccine a major priority.

“We kind of have this glimmer of hope with vaccines,” Collier said. “We need to make sure that we’re telling our students to go and get vaccinated; we have to make sure they feel safe and comfortable getting vaccinated, and that they have reliable transportation to go get vaccinated.”

And for those students who aren’t comfortable receiving a vaccine, Collier said, the university may be able to find some kind of work around, such as a situation in which students who receive their vaccine can return to campus, and those who are opposed to the vaccine are offered the chance to complete their classes online.

Sophomore nursing major Gabrielle Ritz said that she’d be in support of JMU requiring the COVID-19 vaccine in the fall. Ritz is already vaccinated, and she said a mandate would do much to encourage a broader move toward public safety on campus.

“It would definitely make me feel safer if JMU required everyone to be vaccinated,” Ritz said. “I know people have their own beliefs, but personally, I don’t have a problem with getting the vaccine and having it be required for school.”

Ritz said that though she understands some individuals might have reservations regarding the vaccine’s EUA status and and vaccination in general, public health and safety should be at the forefront of any decision-making.

“I can totally understand how people are nervous just because it’s all so new,” Ritz said. “But, I would definitely say it’s still worth getting. My priority would be to keep everyone safe around me.”

McGraw said that regardless of what the university decides to require, he’d like to see JMU’s community members put the interest of public health at the forefront during a time when public health and private liberty are directly at odds.

“In society, we need to sort of come together to protect each other,” McGraw said. “If you want to come together with other college students and other faculty members in the fall and participate in this collective activity of being educated together, participating in the academic environment, then you have to do this one simple step to keep each other protected — really talking about an affirmative duty that we have to keep each other safe.” 

Contact Jake Conley at breezeeditor@gmail.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.