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For Now, Maine Colleges Taking Mixed Approach To Requiring Or Recommending Coronavirus Vaccines

Virus Outbreak Ohio
Phil Long
Associated Press
This Thursday, April 8, 2021 file photo shows Kent State University student Regan Raeth of Hudson, Ohio, has her COVID-19 vaccination administered by Kent State nurse Kristen Barath in Kent, Ohio.

Over the past few weeks, colleges across Maine have announced their fall plans. And most are looking at returning to a more traditional semester. That means more students in dorm rooms and a lot more classes in-person.

But many are now wrestling with another decision: whether to require students and staff to get a COVID-19 vaccine before coming to campus.

Across the country, more and more colleges say they'll mandate the shot for all students this fall. But in Maine, requirements are varied — and officials say the guidelines could change depending on factors such as the trajectory of the virus over the next few months.

"This has been hard on students," says Maine Community College System President David Daigler.

He says when deciding whether to require vaccinations at the system's seven campuses, officials considered the issue of mental health. Daigler says the colleges heard from many students that they felt isolated when sequestered in residence halls.

So for this fall, Daigler says the system decided that one way to bring back some of that normalcy — while still protecting student health — was to require the system's roughly 950 residential students to get vaccinated before entering the dorms.

"Having students be able to get together — in a game room, in a residence hall — and spend some time together, those things are just incredibly valuable. But they have to be stationed against the larger risks. You can't just open the door and say, we're going to back to the way it was. We have to make sure that we protect those communities," Daigler says.

The requirement won't extend to commuter students, Daigler says, and the system will continue to enforce precautions including mask-wearing on campus.

But the vaccination requirement matches similar policies announced in recent weeks by a growing number of colleges, including Brown and Northeastern universities, as vaccine supply increases across the country.

At Brunswick's Bowdoin College, the school's current guidance is that it will "expect that all students will arrive on campus in the fall having already been vaccinated, and that faculty and staff will also have been vaccinated," except for those with legal exceptions.

But for many other schools — such as Bangor's Husson University and the University of Maine System — the strategy at this point is to only encourage vaccination, not require it.

In recent months, the UMaine System launched a large vaccination drive, called "This is Our Shot, Maine," with school and student leaders urging the community to get their vaccines.

But UMaine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said in March that because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only given the COVID-19 vaccines emergency use authorization, the system won't require them yet.

"If a regular approval was granted, we would consider requiring that, unless there was a specific reason that that would not be in the best interest of the individual," he says.

Bar Harbor's College of the Atlantic announced on Thursday that once the vaccines are granted permanent approval, the school believes that "it is our ethical and legal duty to require the vaccine." The college plans to work with local hospitals to access vaccines, and will work with students with medical exceptions.

In Standish, St. Joseph's College has yet to require vaccinations but is setting a goal that 85 percent of students and staff get their shots in order to reach herd immunity. Spokesperson Oliver Griswold says that would hopefully allow students to end social distancing and hold gatherings again in their dorm rooms.

"We all want to encourage everybody to do the right thing to get back to that place. But it's really hard to see the future," he says.

And Griswold says depending on what happens in the future, the college could still decide to mandate student vaccinations for this summer or fall.

Further complicating the situation, Griswold says, is that it's difficult for many students near the southern Maine school to drive to clinics in locations such as Bangor in order to get the shot.

And with administration of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine currently on pause, students may not have the time to get both shots of the other vaccines.

"Our students are going to have a hard time getting the two-shot done in the same place. Because the semester will end before that second shot. So there are a lot of different competing priorities and challenges with the vaccine rollout as it pertains to college students. And we're trying to manage that every day," Griswold says.

For now, many colleges say they plan to continue monitoring the trajectory of the virus and vaccinations over the next few months — and that those factors will ultimately determine exactly what the college experience will look like this fall.