Maryland universities say mandatory COVID vaccine deadlines have largely been effective for convincing students to get the shot, with just a few dozen at some campuses refusing and facing consequences such as being barred from in-person classes or kicked out of school altogether.
At least 14 Maryland colleges and universities required students, and in some cases employees, to get vaccinated before the fall semester. In announcing the mandates in the spring, officials said they feared that a return to in-person classes, coupled with close living quarters on campus, could result in outbreaks.
Johns Hopkins University announced a requirement first and was soon followed by Morgan State University and the entire University System of Maryland, the latter of which left decisions about implementation and enforcement up to its 12 individual schools.
At most of the universities, the final deadline for students to comply was Thursday.
Some schools have already disenrolled dozens of students who failed to get vaccinated and did not receive a medical or religious exemption. In some cases, students can re-enroll quickly once they produce vaccination documentation.
The University of Maryland, College Park, which has one of the largest student bodies in the state, reported canceling course registrations for 79 students who failed to meet its Aug. 16 deadline.
Towson University said it canceled enrollment for 79 students on Sept. 13 for failure to comply with the mandate. That count fell to 42 students following a final review, university officials said Friday.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which boasts a 99% compliance rate among students, barred about 30 individuals from in-person courses for the semester.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore ― home to the state’s medical school, as well as nursing, therapy, pharmacy and other programs — counted just one student who failed to comply with the mandate and was removed from the student body as a result, officials said.
Meanwhile, Coppin State University in Baltimore reported a 62% compliance rate among its student body. A university spokeswoman attributed the low rate chiefly to a large number of students taking courses online this semester.
Outside of the university system umbrella, both the private Johns Hopkins and independent Morgan State universities set their own vaccination requirements for students.
An estimated 82% of Johns Hopkins students are in compliance with the vaccination mandate, which carried a Thursday deadline. Another 15% of students are in the process of being vaccinated, due “almost entirely” to the university’s policy that those who received a vaccine only authorized by the World Health Organization must get inoculated with a shot approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the university said.
At Morgan State, 95% of students are vaccinated, officials said earlier in September. The university is conducting mandatory testing twice per week for students and employees with approved exemptions and recently expanded testing to a random selection of vaccinated people.
High compliance rates among student bodies buoyed some administrators at a time when the pandemic has upended many aspects of higher education.
“This was a small miracle,” said Nancy Young, the vice president for student affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “It doesn’t actually feel like a miracle anymore because we’ve been pulling off miracles for 18 months.”
Many universities across the region collaborated on strategies that encouraged compliance, Young said. She also credited the university’s access to Maryland’s vaccine registration database as a critical tool for making it seamless for students to electronically share their paperwork with the school.
Also, UMBC officials coordinated across departments to contact students and educate them about their options, reaching out through phone banks, online portals, student government, athletics departments, and emergency contacts, such as a parent or family member.
Anecdotally, Young said many students wanted to get inoculated, so the school focused on educating them on their choices. In a couple of cases, her office worked with families of students who had more concerns about the vaccine than the students themselves.
The university system’s mandate sparked one lawsuit: a federal case involving two Towson students and an employee at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. In the suit they filed last month, they allege the requirement violates their rights, question the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, and say the system didn’t use proper channels to add the coronavirus vaccine to its list of required inoculations.
A university system spokesman declined at the time the suit was filed to comment on it, citing a policy not to comment on pending litigation. But when system Chancellor Jay A. Perman, a physician, issued the mandate in the spring, he explained that a cost-benefit analysis in consultation with experts showed vaccines would help keep students and staff safe on campus.
The systemwide mandate offered universities clout and authority to back up the enforcement, along with the freedom to tailor the implementation to each campus community, Young said.
During a Maryland Senate subcommittee meeting Sept. 9, elected officials questioned University System of Maryland leaders as to why the vaccine policies varied across schools.
“We recognize that we need to have some flexibility because our campuses are very different from one another,” Joann Boughman, the system’s senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, told the committee.
For example, Boughman said, the University of Baltimore does not provide campus housing and continues to educate most students online, with the exception of its law school.
University of Baltimore administrator Nicole C. Marano said earlier in September that 95.4% of students enrolled in in-person classes have complied with the vaccine mandate. Of the remaining students, a “sizable majority” have committed to the vaccine process and are working to receive their second doses.
The University of Baltimore requires unvaccinated students to be tested twice a month for the coronavirus.
Some students who had already received the vaccine say the mandates allowed them to feel safer and made it possible to return to in-person instruction.
Despite the lower compliance rate at Coppin State in West Baltimore, sophomore Keysean Reese was happy the university had a vaccine mandate in place for the fall. The 19-year-old said the requirement helps keep the campus open, which is important to him because he struggled with a few online courses last year.
“I just feel like it was safer for everybody,” Reese said of the mandate.
Students had until Thursday to comply with the mandate or get an exemption before facing disciplinary measures, including suspension from the university. Coppin State representatives continue to counsel unvaccinated students on vaccine options.
“Many of these students will and have elected to receive the vaccine, once provided additional information related to vaccine safety and efficacy,” said university representative Angela Galeano in an email. “In light of these measures taken, we are confident that we will be able to retain most, if not all, currently registered students.”
Freshman Olivia Wright received her vaccine in March in hopes of protecting herself from COVID-19. The 18-year-old has asthma and sickle cell trait, conditions that she worried would worsen her health outcome should she contract the virus.
Knowing Coppin State has a mandate makes her feel safer on campus, she said.
“I have friends who go to school down South and they have outbreaks down there,” Wright said. “It’s scary.”
The Evening Sun
Outside of a vaccine clinic Wednesday at Coppin State, open to both students and members of the community, a sophomore biology major exited the building with a frozen coffee drink, topped with whipped cream, in hand.
The student, who asked that her name not be used because she was concerned about what future employers might think, said she is unvaccinated and obtained a religious exemption to attend classes on campus.
“I’ve always been a little cautious,” she said of deciding not to seek out the vaccine.
The 20-year-old anticipates she will get vaccinated eventually in order to travel, an activity in which she expects to encounter more mandates. Until then, the student said she needs to do more research on the vaccine.
“I’m lollygagging,” she said.
This article has been updated to show the final count of disenrolled Towson University students.
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.