This post first appeared on the Tallahassee Democrat.
On April 1, the president of Nova Southeastern University announced that all students would need proof of vaccination before returning to campus in the fall. Within 24 hours, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order banning government entities from issuing so-called “vaccine passports” and prohibiting Florida businesses from requiring them for entry.
Few have discussed the importance of this decision on Florida colleges and their ability to incentivize COVID-19 vaccines for students — but the implications are significant.
Some Florida businesses have asserted that DeSantis’ ban on vaccine passports is unconstitutional, which may lead to noncompliance. For universities, this isn’t so simple. If schools don’t comply, they lose their eligibility for state grants or contracts. Tuition, grants and state funding are the lifelines of public higher education. Schools cannot afford to disobey.
However, banning government entities from issuing vaccine passes means It will be impossible for schools to verify whether or not students are vaccinated. It also affects an institution’s ability to incentivize students to take vaccines.
For example, Dickinson State University in North Dakota is allowing students with proof of vaccination to be exempt from their campus mask mandate in the fall. This allows students to choose if they want a vaccination pass or not, but motivates them to do so.
These exemption-based policies don’t force vaccinations. Instead, they empower students with choice, while providing incentives for a safer school year on campus. Without vaccine passes, this is not a viable option for Florida universities.
DeSantis is justified in noting the hurdles to vaccine access. Some Floridians have not had an opportunity to receive the vaccine, others have antibodies from natural infection, and a few experience health-related, religious or additional prohibitions. No one wants to isolate a group of people. Luckily, the government does not need to.
Legislators can respond as they have before — with exemptions. Florida State University requires proof of a measles immunization before registering for classes. But exemptions are available on the basis of age, religion and campus location.
Rutgers University implemented a similar policy in response to COVID. Recently, it announced that vaccinations are mandatory to return to campus in the fall, but students can file for exemptions if their classes are fully online or on the basis of health or religion. Florida universities can follow their lead, thus striking a balance between the strict policy proposed by Nova Southeastern and the excessively restrictive nature of DeSantis’ order.
Vaccinations can help us return to campus safer and with less fear. DeSantis stresses the importance of repairing Florida’s economy, and Florida colleges and universities should be a top priority. A clear, flexible, and inclusive policy pertaining to vaccination will improve the safety and financial stability of Florida’s higher education institutions.