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WASHINGTON — Universities that adopted COVID-19 vaccine mandates this fall have seen widespread compliance even though many schools made it easy to get out of the shots by granting exemptions to nearly any student who requested one.
Facing pockets of resistance and scattered lawsuits, colleges have tread carefully because forcing students to get the vaccine when they have a religious or medical objection could put schools into tricky legal territory. For some, there are added concerns that taking a hard line could lead to a drop in enrollment.
Still, universities with mandates report much higher vaccination rates than communities around them, even in places with high vaccine hesitancy. Some universities have seen nearly complete compliance, including at state flagship schools in Maryland, Illinois and Washington, helping them avoid large outbreaks like those that disrupted classes a year ago.
Since announcing its mandate two months ago, Ohio University students and employees who reported being vaccinated at its Athens campus shot up from 69% to almost 85%.
"Educating and encouraging was only getting us so far," said Gillian Ice, a professor of social medicine who is overseeing the school's pandemic response. "We had a lot who were on the fence. They weren't necessarily anti-vaccine. They didn't think they were high risk."
School administrators are watching closely to see how the mandate affects enrollment, she said. Some students are likely to transfer, but there's also a less vocal group who support the requirement and would not have come to campus without it, Ice said.
At least 1,100 colleges and universities now require proof of COVID-19 vaccines, according to tracking by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Some schools told students last spring they would need to be vaccinated before returning to campus this fall. Others held off on making the shots a requirement until the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine in August.
Many other universities don't have vaccine requirements for anyone on campus. In some cases, political leaders have blocked universities from issuing mandates.
Just about every university with a vaccine requirement allows students and employees to ask for a medical or religious exemption. A smaller number of schools allow students to refuse the shots over philosophical reasons.
Most of the nation's largest public universities aren't seeing large numbers of student exemption requests, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. At the same time, those colleges have approved the vast majority — in some cases all — of the requests.
At many colleges, the requests are evaluated by committees that include medical experts, faculty members and student life administrators. Some schools ask students for notes signed by doctors or detailed statements explaining the principles of their religious beliefs.
At Virginia Tech University, where 95% of students are now vaccinated, the school granted all of the 1,600 exemption requests from students as long as they agreed to weekly testing.
"It's a balance. How hard you want to come down on people? Do you say you can't be on campus if you're not vaccinated?" Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said. "We didn't want to go that far."
School leaders decided not to second-guess doctors or question someone's religious beliefs, he said.
"That's just not a conversation we want to get into," Sands said about the religious exemptions. "Everybody has their own approach to their faith."
Virginia Tech, which posted a record enrollment of more than 37,000 this fall, also sent away 134 students who failed to show they had been vaccinated or received an exemption.
Jake Yetzke, a junior at Oakland University in Michigan, thought about transferring, but he didn't want to give up his full scholarship after the school announced a vaccine mandate for the fall.
He received a religious exemption for reasons he didn't want to share. Getting the shot should be a personal choice, he said.
If we approach this in an instructional and educational way, students are going to be receptive to that for the most part.
–Jim Henderson, University of Louisiana System president
But even with the exemption, he feels ostracized because he's no longer allowed to be a part of the university choir or its vocal jazz ensemble, he said. During voice classes, he has to sing behind a plexiglass wall while wearing a mask and he's treated differently by teachers now, he said.
"It's a lot of that kind of stuff," said Yetzke, a music technology major. "I'm barred from doing a lot. That's really frustrating because I came here to sing."
Amanda Born, who attends Grand Valley State in western Michigan, also received a religious exemption. She said she knows at least 10 students who didn't want the vaccine but went ahead with it anyway.
"It was a scare tactic, and it worked," she said. "They want to continue living their life, going to the school they chose and continuing with their career path."
The nine-campus University of Louisiana System told students immediately after the FDA approval that they would need to be vaccinated or receive a medical, religious or philosophical exemption before signing up for classes next semester. State law there provides for broad exemptions to vaccine mandates.
The results have been mixed: A third of the students at McNeese State University have applied for an exemption, while at the University of New Orleans just 6% have asked to skip the shot. Overall, inoculation rates have increased.
Jim Henderson, who's president of the system, said there likely would have been twice as many exemption requests if they had required the vaccine before FDA approval.
"Every step chips away at hesitancy," he said. "If we approach this in an instructional and educational way, students are going to be receptive to that for the most part."
Contributing: Kathleen Foody