Schools will need to evaluate mask, testing and vaccination policies as they reopen

President Donald Trump has been promising a coronavirus vaccine for what seems like forever. During the final presidential debate between him and former Vice President Joe Biden, he claimed that pharmaceutical companies are “within weeks” of being able to release a vaccine to the public. Several health experts, on the other hand, are saying that it will more likely be mid-2021 before this can happen. 

Despite the conflicting information, one thing is for sure: many Americans are waiting anxiously for the vaccine, which they hope will bring an end to the pandemic and allow them to return to jobs and schools.

However, vaccination has been a point of debate in the United States for years. Even in schools, which often require vaccines for attendance, students may opt out of receiving them, citing medical, religious or philosophical reasons. USC, for example, requires students to verify immunity from MMR, chickenpox and meningococcal disease but allows exemptions for all three reasons mentioned above. 

As schools begin to reopen, vaccination will become an especially relevant issue, and schools will need to evaluate to what extent they will be able to mandate coronavirus testing and protections. The answer to this will be pivotal in ensuring the health and safety of students at USC.

Like with the reopening of on-campus housing, USC’s decisions are contingent on those of the state of California because vaccination requirements, like most other public health issues, are largely decided by individual states, not the federal government. In 1905, when the United States was in the midst of the smallpox epidemic, the Supreme Court ruled in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that states could enforce vaccinations when they are “necessary for the public health or the public safety.” 

As of now, it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of a coronavirus vaccine. The Food and Drug Administration said it would approve a vaccine with at least 50% effectiveness, which roughly equates to the effectiveness of influenza vaccines but is well below that of the smallpox vaccine, which is 95%. 

This further complicates the issue of compulsory vaccinations at the state level. The Harvard Law Review writes that the justification for Jacobson v. Massachusetts was that “there was no other less coercive means available to staunch the outbreak;” in other words, the “vaccination was a medical necessity to combat the disease.” Based on these figures, it’s not definitive whether or not the vaccine is the most coercive means to end the pandemic. Indeed, Director of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Robert Redfield has said that face masks are the best defense against the coronavirus.

“We have clear scientific evidence they work,” he said. “I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.” 

Despite this, almost 20 states still do not require people to wear face masks in public places. As states and individuals continue to resist recommendations by health experts, it is easy to see this continuing after the announcement of a coronavirus vaccine. 

As the fall semester winds down, the USC administration has yet to decide whether students will be able to return to campus in the spring. In the fall, USC announced that it would require all students to undergo coronavirus testing before being permitted to stay in USC housing. In addition, face coverings are required on campus, in accordance with county and state regulations.

When a vaccine is released, USC will not be able to enforce policies concerning it with as much certainty. The CDC has already stated that it is “unethical and illegal to test someone who does not want to be tested” and is likely to take a similar position on vaccinations. 

For the health and safety of students, coronavirus testing and protections should be required in schools. Vaccination was essential in the eradication of smallpox. Equally important was the solidarity and national unity that emerged as people battled a common enemy, said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization.

“As the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, humanity’s victory over smallpox is a reminder of what is possible when nations come together to fight a common health threat,” he said.

In the face of the pandemic, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the United States alone, it is not the time to be divided over masks or coronavirus testing and vaccines. If students want to be back in school, they should have to comply with scientifically-backed health recommendations, if not for themselves, then for others.