Attorney General Jason S. Miyares of Virginia issued a legal opinion Friday morning, saying public colleges in the state may not require students to be vaccinated against the coronavirus as a condition of enrollment or in-person attendance.
In the three-page notice, Miyares claims that vaccination against Covid-19 cannot be required because the state General Assembly, which controls the colleges, has not enacted a law requiring vaccination for the in-person attendance. He notes that the legislature amended other laws to deal with the pandemic, but did not grant higher education institutions the power to require such vaccination.
The advisory is the latest move by Virginia’s new Republican leadership to roll back Covid protocols at the state’s public colleges, many of which require students to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and some of which require booster shots. On his first day in office, Jan. 15, Governor Glenn A. Youngkin signed an executive directive rescinding the Covid vaccination mandate for state employees, including faculty and college staff. public.
Miyares made headlines this week when he fired top lawyers — top lawyers — from the University of Virginia and George Mason University. Some critics questioned whether the firings were political – Tim Heaphy, the former UVA attorney, had been on furlough to work as lead investigator in the US House investigation into the January 6, 2021 attacks on the Capitol by supporters of President Donald J.Trump.
A replacement for Heaphy has not been announced. Anne Gentry, associate general counsel at GMU, has been announced as the university’s acting general counsel.
Spokespersons for public colleges in the state said they have seen the attorney general’s notice and are reviewing it. However, the impact of opinion is unclear, with colleges like UVA, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech all reporting vaccination rates above 95%.
Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education, said an opinion from the Virginia attorney general is just that — an opinion. He said college vaccination requirements have not been challenged in court and it appears college leaders do not share Miyares’ view.
“It seems like an unfortunate political game that today, along with opinion on Covid vaccination requirements, is playing with lives,” McDonough said. “From the outside, it appears that the Attorney General intends to limit the ability of Commonwealth campus leaders to exercise their own wise and informed judgment about what is appropriate for their institutions in this difficult journey that we continue to manage. Covid while optimizing the educational environment and educational experience.
But he said those campus leaders are now locked in, given how much legal authority Virginia’s attorney general has over the state’s public colleges and universities — power on full display when he fired the two attorneys general. .
“It looks like colleges in Virginia are going to have to pull out of the ranks of about 40 schools in other states that have vaccine requirements in place,” McDonough said.
Tension between states and colleges over Covid protocols has surfaced again and again over the past year, with Tennessee flip-flopping on its mask requirements to Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, banning all terms. of Covid vaccination in the state, in conflict with the now abandoned mandate of federal employees.
“There’s this issue of institutional autonomy versus whether a higher education institution is simply an instrument of the state,” McDonough said.
He added that Miyares’ efforts to impose his legal authority on Virginia’s public colleges are “quite unique and somewhat troubling.”