PORTLAND, Maine — The University of New England (UNE) will require COVID-19 vaccinations for all on-campus students and staff for the 2021 fall semester, the university announced in a release Wednesday.
UNE said the decision was made “after careful consideration and co consultation with university’s medical and public health experts, the COVID-19 Response Committee, legal experts, and the student, faculty, and professional staff governing bodies.”
UNE President James Herbert told NEWS CENTER Maine a lot of thought, research, and polling went into the decision. While he is getting some minor pushback, Herbert said when it comes to pandemic policy, he’s learned that every decision is going to make someone unhappy.
“We haven’t had people say they’re not coming but I have had some pushback. My email has been active since the announcement went out this morning. The majority of the messages and phone calls have been supportive," Herbert said. "People are glad that we're doing it for the most part, but I have had some folks were not happy about it and have concerns or questions and we're responding to those.”
The university said it will allow for religious and medical exemptions, “but vaccination will be required for specific clinical and academic programs and activities.” Those exempted will be required to wear masks on campus.
When asked if it was going to be difficult to enforce the mask mandate for the unvaccinated, Herbert said, “We’re not to be running around chasing people if they’re not wearing a mask, but on the other hand, there’s no point in having a mandate if were not willing to enforce it."
"We will have to enforce it," he said. "I think those who have a legitimate need for an exemption, I really don’t anticipate they will object to having to wear a mask."
UNE said some safety measures may continue on campus, but they intend to have a fall semester “that is as close to normal as possible, with the goal of full occupancy in classrooms, residence halls, and labs.” Campus health and safety protocols will be reviewed with guidance from the U.S. and Maine CDC, UNE said.
“As vaccines become increasingly available, we can all envision how this incredible scientific advancement will allow us to return to the normal UNE activities on our campuses we all miss so much," Herbert said. “Right now my vision is the fall will look very normal, and believe me I’m excited about that.”
The university also said they are working with the Maine CDC to hold vaccine clinics on campus for students and employees. Its first clinic will be held on the Biddeford campus from May 5 to 7.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020, I have watched our students, faculty, and professional staff demonstrate deep commitment to their work while making incredible sacrifices,” Herbert said. “I have been especially saddened by what our students have lost, and I am eager to restore the full and vibrant experience of a UNE education as soon as possible. I encourage all students, faculty, and professional staff to take advantage of the many vaccination opportunities here in Maine or in their home state as soon as possible.”
UNE is now the second university in Maine so far to require vaccinations. Last month, Bowdoin College announced all students, faculty, and staff are required to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by Friday, August 13. This is with the exception of those who qualify for legal exemptions, Bowdoin said.
Universities and colleges across the country are weighing how far they should go in urging students to get COVID-19 vaccines and whether it should be a requirement or not. In April, universities including Rutgers, Brown, Cornell, and Northeastern told students they’d be required to get vaccinated before returning to campus next fall. They hope to achieve herd immunity on campus, which they say would allow them to loosen spacing restrictions in classrooms and dorms.
But some colleges are leaving the decision to students, and others believe they can't legally require vaccinations.
Legal scholars say the COVID-19 vaccines' emergency use status moves the issue to a legal gray area that's likely to be challenged in court, and some colleges may take a more cautious approach to avoid litigation.
An announcement was made Tuesday from Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah that non-Maine residents are now eligible to get vaccinated in Maine. Dr. Shah said this would make it easier for college students to get the vaccine. He said one reason the state decided to remove the residency requirement was to make it as easy as possible for college students to get vaccinated when they go home from school.
Shah said other states have also removed the residency requirement, so the state doesn't see getting the second dose as a barrier for non-Maine residents. Shah noted that the Biden administration recently indicated that a college student could get their first dose where they go to college, and then get their second dose at any retail pharmacy back home.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.