University of Minnesota regents on Friday approved a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for the 60,000 students attending the system's five campuses.
The mandate, approved on a 10-1 vote, will take effect once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives final approval to a COVID vaccine, which is expected in the coming weeks.
Faculty and staff at the Twin Cities, Duluth, Rochester, Crookston and Morris campuses must either get vaccinated or undergo regular COVID testing.
"The health and wellness of every member of our university family has always been our top priority, as is ensuring that we are safely able to be together this fall," U President Joan Gabel said.
The U joins hundreds of colleges nationwide and about a dozen private colleges in Minnesota already requiring students to be vaccinated. The Minnesota State system is not requiring COVID vaccinations for students attending its 30 community colleges and seven universities, though its faculty and staff will be subject to an immunization mandate for state workers.
U leaders had initially chosen to encourage rather than require COVID vaccinations but changed course after professors and staffers criticized the decision and the delta variant caused a new surge in infections.
Fall classes at the U's Twin Cities campus start Sept. 7. Because a two-dose vaccine series takes about a month to complete, some students may not be fully vaccinated by the start of the semester.
Even so, the U is hopeful that vaccination and mask mandates will help make for a mostly normal fall semester. Nearly 80% of fall classes at the Twin Cities campus are slated to be taught in person.
"We need to take action here to prevent another period of remote learning in our university triggered by another surge in the pandemic," said Ken Powell, chairman of the U's Board of Regents.
The university will not allow students to be exempted from the vaccination mandate for personal reasons, even though Minnesota's immunization law includes an exemption for personal beliefs. Because the state statute does not mention the COVID vaccine specifically, U leaders decided to set their own exemptions and allow students to opt out only for medical or religious reasons.
Those who seek exemptions for medical reasons must provide appropriate documentation, Gabel said.
While students will be required to get the shots, faculty and staff will have the choice of getting vaccinated or tested regularly. The U took a different approach with employees because it has never required vaccinations as a condition of employment, Gabel said.
Students, however, have long been required to be vaccinated for tetanus, measles, mumps and rubella. The mandate for a licensed COVID vaccine fits within that policy.
"It's a longstanding practice and policy that people didn't think much about before," Regent Mike Kenyanya said of required student vaccinations.
Regent Darrin Rosha voted against the vaccination mandate because of concerns about not allowing all exemptions listed in the law. He said the mandate could be challenged legally, and he questioned why the university is holding students and employees to different standards.
An amendment Rosha proposed to give both students and employees the choice of vaccination or regular testing failed on a 10-1 vote.
The U will soon share more details about the vaccination requirement, including how much time students will have to get the shots after FDA approval and any consequences for not complying with the mandate.
"This delta virus can be prevented by our current vaccines," said Regent Ruth Johnson, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic. "The only way we can hope to have our community on campus, in classrooms, in dorms ... is for us to preserve the masking mandate and to strive for near universal vaccination among our students and other constituencies as quickly as we can."