Permissibility of COVID-19 Vaccine Requirements for Students at Community Colleges

CATEGORY: Special Bulletins
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: May 18, 2021

Community college districts are planning for students to return to campus in the fall.  Of the myriad of considerations that districts need to decide, one is whether to require students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.  The American College Health Association (“ACHA”) announced its recommendation that colleges and universities require the COVID-19 vaccination for all on-campus students where state law and available resources allow and subject to the college and universities’ typical vaccination exemption policies.  According to a list maintained by the Chronicles of Higher Education, a number of public and private colleges and universities throughout the country — such as Rutgers, Cornell, Duke, Brown, Notre Dame, Yale, Princeton, and Northeastern University — have announced their intention to require students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.  Of particular interest to colleges in California, the University of California (“UC System”) and California State University (“CSU System”) systems also announced their intention to require all students and employees accessing university facilities and programs to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, subject to religious exceptions and medical exemptions, once the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) has fully approved at least one vaccine and the fully approved vaccine is widely available.  Recently, the California Community College Chancellor’s Office has issued guidance for districts regarding mandatory vaccination policies.

Following are some key points and considerations for community college districts regarding this issue based on applicable authority and case law.

Case Law May Support a District’s Authority to Require the COVID-19 Vaccines for Students

There is no case law regarding the ability of public colleges to require their students to receive a vaccination as a condition of in-person attendance.  However, there is long history of case law addressing the permissibility of mandatory vaccinations imposed by public entities.  For example, in 1890, the California Supreme Court in Abeel v. Clark[1] upheld a vaccination act that required schools to exclude any child who had not been vaccinated against smallpox.  Further, in 1905, the United States Supreme Court in Jacobsen v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts,[2] upheld a state’s statute requiring mandatory smallpox vaccinations for all adults as a lawful exercise of the state’s police power to protect public health and safety.  Several years later, the United States Supreme Court in Zucht v. King[3] similarly upheld a city ordinance requiring that all students receive a smallpox vaccination in order to attend public or private school.

Subsequent federal and state cases arising out of California have continued to follow Jacobsen v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts to uphold compulsory vaccination mandates imposed by public entities.  This includes state and federal cases upholding recent legislation, which eliminated nonmedical exemptions from the requirement that children receive vaccines for specified infectious diseases before being admitted to any public or private elementary or secondary school or childcare facility in California.[4]

On December 4, 2020, the California Superior Court issued a significant decision, Kiel v. The Regents of the University of California, which supports a public university’s ability to require students to receive a vaccine as a condition of entering a university’s physical campus during the COVID-19 public health emergency.  In Kiel, three employees and two students (“Plaintiffs”) of the UC System asked the court for an order prohibiting the UC System from enforcing a requirement that all students, faculty, and staff receive a flu vaccine as a condition of accessing a UC System campus.  The mandate allowed for medical exemptions, disability accommodations, and religious accommodations.

The court denied the Plaintiffs’ request.  The court explained that the vaccination mandate was narrowly tailored to achieve the UC System’s interest in protecting health and safety by preventing the spread of the flu during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Specifically, the mandate only applied to those who accessed UC System property for work or study, allowed for medical exemptions and disability and religious accommodations, and was limited to the 2020-21 flu season only.  The court also found that the harm to the Plaintiffs of having to abide by the mandate and possibly work or study remotely were outweighed by the harm of contracting and transmitting the flu during the COVID-19 pandemic to those on campus and in the surrounding community if the flu vaccine mandate was not in place.  While a trial court decision is not controlling authority, the opinion may offer an insight into how a court might view a mandatory vaccination policy.

Finally, the Chancellor’s Office has surveyed law regarding vaccination policies and released guidance for community college districts explaining authority allowing a district to impose a vaccination requirement.[5]  That guidance concluded, “Provisions of California law, taken together, indicate that the responsibility for determining whether to impose a vaccination requirement is within the authority of community college districts.” The guidance cites much of the above law and notes that the California Constitution and the Education Code make clear that community college districts have authority to “act in any manner that is not in conflict with or inconsistent with, or preempted by, any law and that is not in conflict with the purposes for which community college districts are established.”[6]

Community College Districts that rely upon the Kiel case and its predecessors to impose a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine for their students should tailor a mandatory policy to the specific circumstances of the pandemic and may want to consider narrowly applying the requirement (such as to only those students who intend to access the institution’s physical campus), should provide some distance learning options for students, and should allow for appropriate exemptions and accommodations based on applicable state and federal law.

Emergency Use Authorization

At this time, all COVID-19 vaccines currently available are approved by the FDA under emergency use authorization (“EUA”), and the cases discussed above do not address vaccines approved under EUA.[7]  It is therefore unclear whether the fact that these vaccines are approved under EUA would affect an institution’s ability to require students to be fully vaccinated before attending classes on campus.

As noted above, the UC System and the CSU System recently announced their intention to require all students and employees accessing university facilities and programs to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, subject to religious exceptions and medical exemptions.  However, both institutions have stated that this requirement will not take effect until the FDA has fully approved at least one vaccine and the fully approved vaccine is widely available.  Therefore, the vaccination requirement imposed by the UC System and the CSU System will not require students or employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine authorized under EUA.

A currently pending lawsuit brought by California Educators for Medical Freedom (“CEMF”), a “voluntary, unincorporated association of [Los Angeles Unified School District (“LAUSD”)] employees whose purpose is to advocate for medical choice and bodily autonomy on behalf of its members,” has challenged a requirement imposed by LAUSD that all employees of LAUSD be vaccinated against COVID-19.  CEMF alleges that LAUSD is unable to require that employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 due to the EUA status of the current COVID-19 vaccines.  Essentially, CEMF asserts that LAUSD, as a government agency, is prohibited from requiring administration of currently available COVID-19 vaccines given an individuals’ right, under the FDA statute, to decline emergency use vaccines.  CEMF further describes a COVID-19 vaccine approved under EUA as “experimental” and equates LAUSD’s requirement that employees receive a COVID-19 vaccine approved under EUA as non-consensual human medical experimentation inconsistent with international, federal, and California law and regulations.

If a student refuses to be vaccinated against COVID-19 because the only available vaccines are approved under EUA, it is uncertain whether community college districts have a duty to exempt these students from the COVID-19 vaccine requirement.  Given the uncertainty surrounding the EUA issue, districts may want to consider postponing the implementation of mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies until a COVID-19 vaccine has received general approval from the FDA and that vaccine is widely available.

Districts that wish to impose a COVID-19 mandate before a vaccine has received general approval from the FDA instead of only EUA approval, may want to consider discussing alternative options with students who refuse to obtain the COVID-19 vaccine, such as requiring these students to obtain regular COVID-19 testing as a condition of attending classes, and other measures, such as enhanced personal protective equipment and remote learning options.  Districts may also want to provide students who express concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine with information on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine from reputable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”).

Community College Districts Must Provide Disability and Medical Exemptions for Students

Districts that choose to require the COVID-19 vaccine for students must provide disability exemptions consistent with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) to students who have a medical condition or contraindication that prevents them from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, with documentation from a medical provider.  Title II of the ADA applies to places of public accommodation and prohibits discrimination against certain individuals, such as current students and student applicants based on disability with regard to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations.  Generally, districts must make academic adjustments unless doing so would pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others.  Notably, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the ADA in the employment context, has concluded that COVID-19 presents a significant risk of substantial harm to the health and safety of the workplace and that COVID-19 satisfies the direct threat standard under the ADA.[8]  While the EEOC does not enforce the ADA with respect to students, the same rationale may apply.  Nevertheless, the district should consider possible accommodations for students on a case-by-case basis, but these could include distance learning, enhanced personal protective equipment, or required participation in regular COVID-19 surveillance testing.

Any policy should only request the medical provider to validate the existence of a medical condition or contraindication that prevents the student from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine: it should not ask for the name or type of the medical condition or contraindication nor any other specific medical information to avoid implicating the student’s privacy rights or applicable state or federal laws prohibiting such medical inquiries.

Religious Accommodations for Students who Refuse the COVID-19 Vaccine

Finally, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) require employers to give religious accommodations to employees.  While these laws only apply to employees, districts that require the COVID-19 vaccine may want to consider providing religious accommodations to their students.  If a student requests an accommodation to a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for religious reasons and a community college district declines to provide one or if a student is prohibited from participating in programming or activities provided by district due to being unvaccinated for religious reasons, it is possible that the student may bring a claim for religious discrimination under the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, section 4 of the California constitution.

Other than claims of discrimination, districts may want to provide accommodations for those students who refuse to the COVID-19 vaccine based on their religious beliefs other reasons, including to act consistently with their mission and purpose and to act with respect and demonstrate value of students’ religious beliefs.[9]  Further, districts that elect not to provide religious accommodations may risk negative public perception and public relations issues related to that choice.  Notably, many of the colleges and universities that have announced they are requiring students to obtain the COVID-19 vaccine have also stated that they will provide religious accommodations for students as well.

Possible accommodations for students who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine due to their religious beliefs may include remote/distance learning options, required participation in regular COVID-19 surveillance testing, or enhanced personal protective equipment options, as the institution deems appropriate under the circumstances.

Districts Have a Duty to Protect Students and Provide a Safe Working Environment for Employees

California colleges have a duty to protect students from foreseeable harm while they are “engaged in activities that are part of the school’s curriculum or closely related to its delivery of educational services.”[10]  This duty to protect students from foreseeable harm is a potential justification for requiring students on campus to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Further, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSHA”) and the California Occupational Safety and Health Act (“Cal/OSHA”) require community college districts to provide a healthy and safe workplace for their employees.[11]  Districts may be able to justify a requirement that students receive a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of entering the campus as a measure to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to maintain a healthy and safe workplace for their employees.  Notably, however, Cal/OSHA’s current COVID-19 prevention and mitigation standards do not require that employees or others who access the workplace be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Potential Risks and Consequences of Requiring the COVID-19 Vaccine

Districts should be aware that mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for students as a condition of entering the campus may lead to litigation against the institution from students or others who oppose the requirement for any number of reasons, including religious reasons, anti-vaccination beliefs, or other personal reasons.  Defending against a lawsuit can be time-consuming and expensive.

Districts should also be aware that mandating the COVID-19 vaccine may be perceived by the student community in a negative way.  Some students may perceive the requirement as a way to control their behavior or remove their agency.

Further, there are some practical issues as well.  For example, international students returning to campus may not have had the opportunity to receive an FDA approved vaccine in their home country before returning to campus.  Similarly, economically disadvantaged students may have a harder time becoming fully vaccinated before returning to campus as well.  Students may also come from marginalized backgrounds and distrustful of government sponsored vaccination.  For these reasons, districts may want to provide vaccination resources, including information, for students who have not become fully vaccinated before returning to campus with possible additional precautionary measures in place in the interim.

Districts should also consider the administrative burdens of implementing a mandatory policy.  A district will need to decide whether and how to enforce such a mandate and whether to require proof of vaccination, proof of medical condition, and proof of a sincerely held religious belief.  If a district requires such documents, it will need to maintain them confidentially and ensure the information is not disclosed.


If community college districts decide to require the COVID-19 vaccine for their students, they should:

  • Acknowledge that the law in this area is currently unsettled and become familiar with the risks;
  • Consider limiting the requirement to only students who will be on campus, to students living in student housing, or students participating in athletics, etc. consistent with the district’s operations and goals;
  • Provide distance learning options, enhanced personal protective equipment, and/or regular COVID-19 surveillance testing for students who do not wish to be vaccinated;
  • Make information about the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine from reputable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), readily available on campus and through electronics sources, such as the district’s website;
  • Provide medical exemptions for students;
  • Consider requests from students who decline to be fully vaccinated due to the EUA status of the current COVID-19 vaccines or wait to impose a requirement until the FDA has approved a vaccine for general use and that vaccine is widely available; and
  • Consider providing accommodations for students who decline to be fully vaccinated due to religious reasons.

This is an evolving area, and LCW will update clients if there is further guidance or case law regarding the ability of districts to require the COVID-19 vaccine for students.


[1] Abeel v. Clark (1890) 84 Cal. 226.

[2] Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1905) 197 U.S. 11.

[3] Zucht v. King (1922) 260 U.S. 174.

[4] Whitlow v. California (S.D. Cal. 2016) 203 F.Supp.3d 1079; Love v. State Dept. of Education (2018) 29 Cal.App.5th 980; Brown v. Smith (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 1135, 1138.

[5] https://www.cccco.edu/-/media/CCCCO-Website/Files/General-Counsel/2021-01-advisory-mandated-covid-19-vaccinations-a11y.pdf?la=en&hash=80473DB866E97BE0A9650603A745C3FC85871377.

[6] Ed. Code, § 70902, subd. (a)(1); Cal. Const., art. IX, § 14.

[7] When a recipient receives a COVID-19 vaccine approved under EUA from a medical provider, the recipient is informed that the FDA approved the vaccine for emergency use, the known and potential benefits and risks of the vaccine, the extent to which such benefits and risks are unknown, their option to accept or refuse the vaccine, and any available alternatives to the product.

[8] EEOC “Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/pandemic-preparedness-workplace-and-americans-disabilities-act (Last updated on March 21, 2020.)(providing that “[b]ased on guidance of the CDC and public health authorities as of March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic meets the direct threat standard.”); See also 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2 subd. (r).

[9]See Education Code section 200, “It is the policy of the State of California to afford all persons in public schools, regardless of their disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic that is contained in the definition of hate crimes set forth in Section 422.55 of the Penal Code, including immigration status, equal rights, and opportunities in the educational institutions of the state.”

[10] Regents of University of California v. Superior Court (2018) 4 Cal.5th 607, 624–626.

[11] Labor Code, § 6300, et seq.

This Special Bulletin is published for the benefit of the clients of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore. The information in this Special Bulletin should not be acted upon without professional advice. 

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