Editorial: To ‘return in earnest,’ students should be required to get vaccinated

Editorial Board

President Maud S. Mandel’s March 19 email announcing the College’s plan for fall 2021 aligned pretty closely with what most students expected. The tentative plan, Mandel wrote, is for the fall semester to be held in person, contingent on changing state rules and local conditions. 

If it was not exactly surprising, the email did contain a valuable note of hope. Mandel wrote: “I’m buoyed by the possibility that we’ll be able to return in earnest next fall, and that I’ll be able to welcome you all back home.” The Record board shares Mandel’s hope. We want to go to college without the specter of COVID-19, without quarantines and dashboards and blocked-off exits. We want to go to Snar. Above all, we want to go to class and the library without worrying about getting COVID or passing it on to someone else. 

For all this to happen safely — for college to feel like college again — the administration needs to ensure that everyone does their part. That means making clear to students that they must get vaccinated before they set foot on campus in the fall. 

The exceptions to this rule should be few. The College should allow exemptions for students with medical issues that would make getting vaccinated unsafe. Students with sincerely held religious objections should also be exempt (which is the College’s policy for other vaccines). Students who spend the summer in a country with limited vaccine access should be allowed to come to campus unvaccinated, but the College ought to require that they get their shots upon arrival and provide them transportation to do so.

Vaccination should not be reduced to an issue of individual liberty, because the choice not to get vaccinated doesn’t just affect the person who makes that choice. Someone who is unvaccinated is much, much more likely than someone who is vaccinated to contract COVID and pass it on to someone else. 

It is then all the more vital that the College require students who do not face vaccine-related obstacles to be vaccinated before the fall semester. Because not all students, staff, and faculty can get vaccinated, all students who can get vaccinated should. Although most students will likely choose to get vaccinated even without a mandate from the College, a small but still potentially harmful number of students may also choose not to. The College has the responsibility to protect community members who are unable to get vaccinated from the whims of those who have a choice.

We must also protect the safety of Williamstown. We cannot forget that large populations of elderly people (who are at a high risk for COVID if unvaccinated) and children (who cannot yet get vaccinated) live just outside our campus, and that we often mingle with these groups on Spring Street. We should do whatever is in our power to prioritize the safety of the place they call home, a home that we have the privilege of learning in.

Requiring just one more vaccine is not an inconvenience to students, and those who would question the College’s ability to require the COVID vaccine cannot deny that vaccine requirements have been in place for years. Though some may argue that vaccine mandates are illegal, legal scholars believe that colleges, especially private ones, hold the power to require student vaccinations. The College already requires that students be vaccinated for measles, meningitis, and more

Furthermore, a number of peer institutions, including fellow NESCACs Bowdoin and Wesleyan, have already announced plans for mandatory vaccination by next fall. Joining the two NESCACs are American, Georgetown, Brown, Notre Dame, Duke, Northeastern, Cornell, Yale, and Columbia. With so many institutions already having taken this step, and countless others likely to in coming weeks, the College should follow suit.

There’s another reason the College should require vaccinations, one that strikes at the heart of who we are as an institution. When 13 percent of Americans say they would “definitely not” get a COVID vaccine, and another 7 percent say they would “only if required” — even though the vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective — it is clear that this country faces a crisis of trust in science. A vaccination requirement would demonstrate the high regard for science that we expect from this college. 

Part of the College’s mission is to “remain a vibrant institution that both reflects and leads the society of which it is a part.” What does it mean for an institution to be a leader? Surely it must mean standing for the values of higher education — for science, for the common good, for truth.

By requiring students to get vaccinated, the College would send a clear message: We care about the health of our community. We care about the pursuit of knowledge. And we care about acting on that knowledge to do what is right. 

Editorials represent the opinion of the majority of the Record editorial board.