The Bowdoin College campus was nearly empty during spring break in 2020, after the school asked students not to return to campus because of concerns about the coronavirus. For the fall semester in 2021, the college will require its students and staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19.  Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

Bowdoin College in Brunswick will require all of its staff and students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for the fall semester, the first Maine college or university to take a step that is becoming increasingly common across the country.

“In order to ensure that our campus is as safe as possible for all of us and for our neighbors, we will require all members of the campus community to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19,” Bowdoin President Clayton Rose wrote in a letter to the community Friday.

Proof of vaccination will be required by Aug. 13 for students and Aug. 24 for faculty and staff. Exemptions will be granted to students for medical reasons and to employees for medical or religious reasons.

The announcement represents a change from Bowdoin’s earlier position of expecting but not requiring vaccinations and comes as a growing number of colleges and universities nationwide are requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for the fall.

In Friday’s letter, Rose said there are a number of benefits to requiring the vaccine, including creating a safer campus environment by avoiding COVID-19 outbreaks, mitigating some of the mental health impacts of pandemic student isolation, alleviating anxiety and discomfort for faculty and students who are fearful of the virus, and reducing the foreseeable impact of local COVID-19 community spread.

“I know that at the moment it can be challenging for faculty and staff to schedule a vaccination appointment,” Rose wrote. “We have a number of months before the new academic year begins and there is every indication that the process will get easier in the weeks ahead as more vaccines are made available in Maine and across the country. These vaccinations are essential for returning to normal, allowing us to protect ourselves and one another.”

Bowdoin students reacted to Friday’s decision mostly with support.

“I’m from Maine – live in Maine – and I know that kids want to be part of the Maine community and I think that having vaccinations enables them to do that safely,” sophomore Robert Shepard said. “It will help keep kids safe and healthy.”

Eunice Shin, a junior, also was on board.

“I don’t think it’s a really big infringement,” she said. “I feel like if the individual chooses not to vaccinate themselves that’s an individual choice on their part, but they shouldn’t infringe upon other students’ right to return back to normal as soon as possible.”

Emma Conklin, though, called the vaccine requirement a “tricky conversation.” She said although the vaccine is potentially lifesaving, the United States has a horrible history of medical experimentation on people of color.

“Getting vaccines for a lot of people of color, and other marginalized groups, it’s a really big deal. It’s a really traumatizing event to even have to think about,” Conklin said. “We want everyone to be safe, but we also have to recognize the history and the weight of it in the country.”

Conklin, a first-year student, also found it strange that the school offered religious exemption to staff but not to students.

“I thought it was very strange that students didn’t also get the opportunity,” she said.

Several colleges and universities in Maine said late last month that they would strongly encourage students and staff to get vaccinated but had no plans to require vaccines. The University of Maine System, which enrolls about 25,000 students, is not currently requiring vaccines because they are still in emergency use authorization.

“The University of Maine System and our Vaccination Planning and Partnership Task Force are constantly monitoring developments with the vaccines currently in use under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization approval process,” system spokesman Dan Demeritt said in an email Friday. “We are encouraging but not requiring vaccination at this time.

“The fall semester is more than four months away and the System has not yet established vaccination requirements for when classes resume. We have launched the ‘This is our shot, Maine’ campaign featuring university and student leaders to encourage vaccination as the smart, safe step everyone should take to protect themselves, their families, and our community.”

The Maine Community College System has said it will require vaccination for students who live on campus. That’s fewer than 1,000 of the system’s more than 15,000 students.

Although Bowdoin is the first Maine school to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all students, a growing number of colleges and universities across the country have announced plans to require them, including Duke, Rutgers, Brown, Cornell, Northeastern and Notre Dame. More could join them.

From a legal perspective, the consensus seems to be that there is no reason colleges cannot impose requirements. Many already require established vaccines, such as MMR, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella.

The one caveat, though, is that the COVID-19 vaccines have been granted emergency use authorization, not full approval, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Harvard Law professor Glenn Cohen, however, told The Associated Press that colleges already are requiring students to take COVID-19 tests that were approved under the same emergency authorization.

In general, private colleges have more leeway to impose restrictions. Public universities may have the same authority but it can depend on state statutes.

An issue brief from the American Council on Education, which represents colleges, says “the legal right of institutions to require COVID-19 vaccination for students seems likely to be upheld as vaccine availability increases,” but also suggests alternatives to mandates. They include: offering incentives and continuing to make online learning options available for those who refuse to get a shot.

Times Record Staff Writer Thacher Carter contributed to this report.

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