Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday issued an executive order blocking the state's public colleges from requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or to show proof that they have been vaccinated.
The executive order also prevents public institutions from placing conditions such as coronavirus testing or masking requirements on students who want to take part in academic activities.
Public education is a right, Ducey, a Republican, said in a statement. He encouraged state residents to get the shot but argued vaccination is a choice.
The order comes as campus leaders in states across the country increasingly find themselves caught between public health advocates and politicians pushing back against vaccine mandates and other measures designed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
Ducey's announcement came shortly after Arizona State University told students planning to take classes on campus in the fall that they are expected to be fully vaccinated and that they should share proof of vaccination with the university. Students who are not vaccinated or who do not share their vaccination status would have been subject to daily health checks, COVID-19 testing up to twice a week and mask requirements on campus, the school told students Monday.
Arizona State plans to comply with the governor's order, however. The order only allows public universities to require COVID-19 testing amid a "significant COVID-19 outbreak in a shared student housing setting." Students who are in clinical settings at healthcare institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes can still be required to show proof of vaccination and be subject to health screenings and testing requirements.
In an email, an Arizona State spokesperson said the university never laid down a vaccine mandate but that it "communicated an expectation that students and employees get the vaccine." Before Ducey's announcement, Arizona State was telling students it was continuing existing health protocols for unvaccinated students, the spokesperson said, pointing to recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calling for colleges without fully vaccinated populations to put in place prevention strategies including promoting vaccination, consistent mask use and COVID-19 testing.
Colleges nationwide are updating their COVID-19 safety protocols as infection rates largely decline and vaccines become widely available. More than 500 campuses have announced some form of vaccine requirement since March, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Arizona is not the only state moving to restrict such requirements. Louisiana lawmakers last week sent a bill to Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, that prohibits public institutions from requiring COVID-19 vaccines until a vaccine is fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The three vaccines in use so far in the U.S. have been approved under an Emergency Use Authorization.
In March, Utah passed a law preventing the state government, including its public colleges, from requiring COVID-19 vaccines. The next month, Republican governors in Florida and Texas issued executive orders to prevent proof-of-vaccination requirements. Texas's order focused on vaccines with EUA approval.
The wave of policymaking does not sit well with public health experts, who worry restrictions on campuses could help the coronavirus spread.
"We want to have a healthy campus environment. We want an uninterrupted academic experience, a rich academic experience," said Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association's COVID-19 Task Force. "In order to get there, the path is clear, and so political maneuvering by those who are not experts in the field is unfortunate."
ACHA has come out against legislation requiring vaccination and restricting vaccine documentation, noting that most state laws include immunization exemptions for medical, personal or religious reasons.
The Education Commission of the States has tracked enacted legislation in Arkansas, Montana, Oklahoma and Utah restricting colleges or state entities from requiring vaccination, documentation or mask requirements.
Ducey plans to work with state lawmakers in Arizona to make his executive order law.