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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

COVID-19 Vaccine Will Be Optional For Most College Students In Charlotte

As part of the UNC System, Western Carolina University in Cullowhee will not require students not to receive a COVID-19 vaccination before returning to classes in the 2021 fall semester.
Western Carolina University
As part of the UNC System, Western Carolina University in Cullowhee will not require students not to receive a COVID-19 vaccination before returning to classes in the 2021 fall semester.

Updated Wednesday, May 5, 1:09 p.m.

Most students who attend colleges and universities in the Charlotte area will not be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 when they return to class this fall.

A Queens University News Service survey of 13 North Carolina colleges and universities within 65 miles of Charlotte found that at least six of the institutions will not require a vaccination.

Among the six that will not have a vaccination requirement are two with the largest enrollments: UNC Charlotte, with 30,146 students and Central Piedmont Community College, with roughly 43,000 students.

Another 9,800 students are enrolled in three other area institutions that will not require vaccinations:

  • Belmont Abbey College
  • Gardner-Webb University
  • Lenoir-Rhyne University

Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said she would leave it to individual universities to decide if vaccinations should be required of students. But Harris voiced concern that unvaccinated students could return to class in Charlotte next fall.

“From my perspective, many of the students coming to our universities are coming from other parts of the country,” Harris said. “We don’t know if they are coming in from places with high rates of the virus, and we don’t know currently which of the variants are most common in those communities. So, as students come back in, I would prefer that they be vaccinated, absolutely.”

Livingstone College in Salisbury this week became the first locally to announce it will require vaccinations this fall. Livingstone has more than 1,100 students.

“We will require the entire campus community (faculty, staff, administration, students and ancillary services) to verify that they are fully vaccinated,” President Anthony J. Davis said in a letter published on the college’s website. Doing so, Davis added, means “enabling the college to effectively and efficiently advance our mission in the ‘new normal.’”

Roughly 5,000 students are enrolled at four other area institutions yet to announce if vaccines will be required: Johnson C. Smith University, Queens University of Charlotte, Pfeiffer University and Cabarrus College of Health Sciences.

While Davidson does not see a need at this point to require vaccinations, it is still finalizing its plans for the fall semester, said Jay Pfeifer, director of media relations.

Catawba College and Wingate University did not respond to requests for an interview.

Nationally, some schools have voiced legal concerns about requiring the vaccine. Virginia Tech, for example, pointed out that the Food and Drug Administration has only allowed the emergency use of the vaccines and has not given full approval.

In North Carolina, state law now requires college and university students to receive vaccines for seven diseases, including tetanus, measles and hepatitis B. Each of these vaccines are FDA-approved and are licensed for use in the U.S.

Harris said she believes colleges and universities would be on solid legal footing if they required vaccinations.

“Most of the research that we’ve done is showing that it can be required legally as long as there’s no discrimination and it’s required across the board with specific exceptions that are laid out in the requirements,” Harris said.

All schools reached said they are strongly encouraging students and faculty to get vaccinated.

“We have been pushing out a lot of information on the vaccine for the past six weeks such as when and where to get it,” said Jeff Lowrance, vice president of communications and marketing relations at Central Piedmont.

At Davidson College, faculty and staff can receive a $100 bonus if they show proof of their full vaccination by the end of August.

“Our students have demonstrated great interest in getting a COVID vaccine, in keeping with Davidson’s strong community culture, so we see no need at this point to require it,” Pfeifer said.

No campus of the University of North Carolina System will require vaccinations in the fall, although the system recommends vaccination for all students, said Jane Stancill, vice president of communications.

UNC was among several institutions that said they would take their guidance from state health officials. The Department of Health and Human Services has not publicly stated a position on required vaccinations and did not respond to requests for an interview.

One recent survey suggests that many college students plan to get the vaccine regardless of whether it is required.

In March, the news site Axios and Generation Lab, a polling and research firm, polled 808 college students. Of those surveyed, 69% said they would definitely get the vaccine and another 20% said they would probably get it. Nearly one of three students said their main reason to get vaccinated was to resume in-person relationships.

Two local students interviewed who were not part of the poll are split on whether getting the vaccine is a good idea.

“It’s just what’s required for progress at this point. It is just the most efficient way to get back to normal,” said Peter Vermette, 23, an economics and math major at UNC Charlotte. Vermette said he has already received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Valentin Moreno, a CPCC student, said, “I feel that they can (require the vaccine), but should offer alternatives off campus, or online classes, for those who will not take the vaccine.” He added that he did not intend to be vaccinated unless it was required.

Nationwide, more than 115 colleges and universities have announced that they will require the vaccine, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Most of those schools are private, and, so far, only three are in North Carolina: Livingstone, Duke University and Wake Forest University.

Pfeiffer University President Scott Bullard cited several factors he would consider in making a decision.

“We are meeting regularly with the other private colleges in the state about the matter, monitoring statistics related to the virus, monitoring . . . various reactions to the various manufacturers’ vaccines, and have spoken to several attorneys about the legality of requiring the vaccine,” Bullard said. He added that most Pfeiffer employees have already been vaccinated.

Also contributing to this story were Cristina Cabrera-Barrientos, Alice Cristea, Khalil Howard, Shannon McGuire and Elvis Menayese. All are students in the James L. Knight School of Communication, which provides the Queens University News Service in support of local community news.

Updated: May 5, 2021 at 1:09 PM EDT
This story was edited to clarify the position of Davidson College, which is still finalizing plans for the fall. The story originally said Davidson would not require vaccinations.
Grace Wesoly, of Greensboro, North Carolina, is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news.
Mona Dougani is a community engagment producer with WFAE. Previously, she was an investigative research and reporting fellow and prior to that reported on local issues as part of the Queens University News Service.