BOSTON — Massachusetts community colleges are tightening their COVID-19 vaccination and testing policies as state public health officials attempt to reach unvaccinated young adults who’ve been driving up overall infection rates.
Beginning in January, the state’s 15 community colleges will require students, educators and staff members to be vaccinated.
The move is a reversal for many of the state’s community colleges, which announced earlier this year they didn’t plan to mandate vaccinations. At the time, community college leaders cited concerns about the impact on minorities and other students with “disproportionate access” to vaccines, among other issues.
Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College, said that decision was also based on the fact that most community colleges don’t have dormitories and because the COVID-19 vaccines were in short supply and only authorized for emergency use.
“But the vaccines are widely available now so we’re less concerned about access to vaccinations, and of course the delta variant has increased the infectiousness of the virus,” Glenn said. “So for the safety of our students and staff the colleges we decided it was time.”
Glenn said the college has been holding mobile vaccination clinics at its Haverhill and Lawrence campuses to boost rates with the mandates looming.
Details of the vaccination policies are still being worked out by colleges, such as whether regular COVID-19 testing will be allowed as alternative, or if they will offer accommodations for religious and medical reasons.
All employees will be required to get their shots, the details of which will be subject to collective-bargaining agreements between the colleges and public employee unions.
Jim Durkin, legislative director for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the union believes that “vaccinations are the safest and most effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and variants of the virus” but that “any policy on vaccinations must be established through discussions and negotiations with the union.”
“While a majority of our members may have already received a vaccination, many others have understandable concerns that we believe should be addressed in advance of any policy implementation,” Durkin said in a statement.
Legal experts say community colleges are on firm legal ground by imposing the mandates.
Public schools and colleges have for years required incoming students to be vaccinated against measles and other infectious diseases.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance last year that federal law doesn’t prevent private employers from requiring vaccines or proof of vaccination from employees.
The sprawling five-campus University of Massachusetts system previously announced that they would require incoming students this fall to be vaccinated unless they have been granted a religious or medical exemption to the rules.
To be sure, there are no federal or state mandates for COVID-19 vaccines in schools or colleges, public or private.
While young people are spared the worst health effects of COVID-19, they’re still among the majority of those getting sick as the state tries to boost vaccinations amid a highly contagious strain of the virus.
Data from the state Department of Public Health shows people ages 20 to 29 represent a majority of new COVID-19 infections — or 3,272 new cases in the past two weeks.
Medical experts say lower vaccination rates among younger people, combined with a heightened risk of infection, is driving the surge.
Dr. William Heineman, president of North Shore Community College, points out that unlike many public and private universities, community colleges face a big challenge from students and staff coming and going from their campuses, homes and communities, potentially spreading the virus or getting infected.
“Our students may be spending less time with other students but they’re mixing with the world more than students at a residential college,” he said. “We don’t have the ability to lock students down in quarantine if there’s an outbreak.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.