COVID-19 Return to Normalcy: Back to School

With vaccinations rolling out and COVID-19 restrictions slowly reversing, most colleges are anticipating a full reopening and reintegration of students to campus. While the desire to “return to normal” may be universal, plans to reopen are far from uniform across the country. 

A growing number of colleges are requiring students to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 in order to return to campus this fall. Some universities are offering incentives for students who get vaccinated (ranging from free t-shirts and gift cards to free summer courses), while others are allowing students to make their own decisions on whether to receive the vaccine. 

As of May 28, more than 180 colleges have required students be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to attend in-person classes during the Fall 2021 semester. Private colleges paved the way for the mandatory vaccination rule, but some public universities are following suit. 

Immunization requirements in school settings have long been in place prior to COVID-19. Students have had to be vaccinated against viral diseases such as meningitis and measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) before arriving to university campuses as first-year students. What is unique with requirements for the COVID-19 vaccine, is that while proving to be overwhelmingly safe and protective against COVID-19, the vaccines are still an investigative countermeasure that is made available through an issuance of Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA. 

Like other COVID-19 regulations and requirements, vaccine requirements vary across colleges and universities. Here is a brief look at a regional breakdown for COVID-19 vaccination requirements.  


With some universities anticipating re-starting in-person learning for the first-time since March 2020, many colleges are requiring students to be vaccinated to return to campus next semester. Notably, the State University of New York and the City University of New York, are requiring students to be vaccinated to return to campus next semester. Northeastern UniversityBrown UniversityGeorgetownGeorge Washington University, and Syracuse University are also among the host of colleges mandating COVID-19 vaccines for students planning to return to campus in the fall of 2021. 


There is a great deal of diversity in COVID-19 vaccine requirements for universities in the Midwest. While the University of Notre Dame in Chicago is requiring vaccinations for students returning to in-person learning, Ohio State University President said they do not plan to “mandate the vaccine in any way.”


Maryland’s state university system is mandating students and staff to be vaccinated before next semester. However, most other universities in the region are not following suit. Significantly, Virginia Tech and The University of Richmond have not yet made decisions on vaccine requirements. In April, the University of Tennessee established that it will not mandate vaccinations for COVID-19 for the upcoming fall school year. Similarly, the University of Texas does not have plans to mandate vaccinations for student or staff returning to in-person learning. 


Most notably in the west, the University of California and California State University systems – among the largest school systems in the country with more than 1 million students, combined – have mandated that students be vaccinated in order to return to campus in the fall of 2021. Arizona State University on the other hand, which has more than 50,000 students, is encouraging students to get vaccinated but is not yet requiring proof of vaccination for students returning to campus.


Schools across the country, from the K-12 to university level struggle to establish common guidelines for vaccination requirements. Much as states had different rules and regulations for COVID-19, with some states still mandating masks while others opening up as early as the summer of 2020, colleges and universities each have their own set of guidelines. As the fall semester approaches, it will be a waiting game to see if the rules each university has in place are effective at keeping students and faculty safe and healthy.