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Hospital employees prepare COVID-19 vaccines in Watkinsville, Georgia on Monday, March 8, 2021. The COVID-19 vaccine clinic located at Piedmont Athens Regional’s Oconee Health Campus vaccinated about 750 employees of Oconee County Schools on Monday. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach)

We are nearly 400 days into the COVID-19 pandemic, and the situation is starting to look up in the United States. Vaccine supplies are increasing, school campuses are reopening and life is slowly returning back to normal.

However, the virus still exists, and as universities across the U.S. contemplate procedures for the fall 2021 semester, the question of how to safely restore college campuses to pre-pandemic “normalcy” is controversial.

Many colleges remain divided over the issue of a vaccine requirement. Yet there are undeniable benefits that can arise from a vaccinated student population and campus community. As a large state school, the University of Georgia should consider implementing a vaccine requirement starting next fall.

Arguments against vaccine mandates typically cite political, moral, religious and medical reasons as to why it is inappropriate. According to a recent poll from Monmouth University, about one in five American adults remain unwilling to get the COVID-19 vaccine due to personal concerns. Opponents say it is simply immoral to force individuals to take medical injections.

On the other hand, many medical scholars and health officials support a widespread vaccine requirement for colleges, emphasizing universities’ legal right to protect students and teachers. Just as schools require medical vaccines such as rubella, meningitis and chickenpox, public officials have argued the COVID-19 vaccine is no different.

Sarah Mudd, a third-year international affairs major at UGA, encourages everyone to get the vaccine but understands why individuals would be hesitant without FDA approval.

“At the end of the day, we are required to have other vaccines so one more would not matter,” Mudd said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of April 15, 2021, more than 125 million Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine, and more than 78 million Americans are fully vaccinated. So far, studies show the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are 90% effective at preventing COVID-19 in people who received both doses. Therefore, public health officials urge individuals to get vaccinated in order to move toward herd immunity.

Institutions such as Rutgers University in New Jersey and Dickinson State University in North Dakota will require the vaccine for students in the fall, providing inoculated individuals with a bracelet that will exempt them from the mask mandate. Rather than drowning the issue with controversy, these colleges are incentivizing students to get vaccinated by offering them a mask-free fall semester.

After more than a year of virtual and isolated learning, students are eager to delve back into the typical college experience. It seems normalcy will only be possible with mass vaccinations and a virus-free community. At a large state school like UGA, requiring a COVID-19 vaccine for all students and faculty will be essential to fully reopening safely and effectively in fall 2021.

Ultimately, it will be up to individual universities to choose. UGA has a tough decision on its hands: Are we going to prosper this fall or remain within the pandemic’s deadly grip?