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Rutgers University on Monday suspended its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students, faculty and staff, effective immediately. Face coverings and testing for COVID-19 will also no longer be required.

The decision comes amid an ongoing lawsuit filed by Children’s Health Defense (CHD) and a group of Rutgers students alleging the mandate violated the students’ right to control their own bodies.

Julio C. Gomez, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told The Defender that despite Rutgers likely taking the position that any further appeals are moot, “We are planning to appeal further to the U.S. Supreme Court, continuing to press our position that Rutgers never had the power to do what it did,” he said.

CHD General Counsel Kim Mack Rosenberg told The Defender that while she was pleased that Rutgers had finally abandoned its mandates and was proud of CHD’s efforts to stop them, Rutgers’ actions highlight that it “has never really followed the law or the science in mandating this vaccine.”

Mack Rosenberg criticized Rutgers for being “one of very few colleges and universities in the U.S. still mandating the vaccine up until now.”

In an email to the college community, Rutgers wrote, “Since March 2020 we have relied on science,” explaining that it had followed guidance from “our own experts and from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to best manage the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Lucia Sinatra, co-founder of No College Mandates, said she was both relieved and frustrated by the announcement.

“It’s just incredibly hard to believe that our justice system does not value informed consent and medical freedom as a fundamental human right — as a constitutional right,” she told The Defender.

‘They’re still convinced they did the right thing’

Sinatra, who has been actively advocating for the removal of college vaccine mandates, was taken aback by Rutgers’ sudden change in policy.

“We had no warning whatsoever,” said Sinatra, who stayed in regular contact with the university. “In fact, we just kept hearing, ‘This COVID-19 mandate is never going to go away.’”

An anonymous Rutgers employee who fought the mandate shared her personal experience and the challenges faced by her colleagues.

“I have a very close colleague who was basically forced to resign due to the booster mandate,” she told The Defender. She also spoke of students who were refused exemptions from the booster shots, even after providing evidence of harm from the initial vaccine doses.

The employee also criticized the university’s failure to acknowledge the harms caused by the vaccines and said she is concerned this kind of overreach could happen again.

“The problem is, some of the key decision-makers at Rutgers still think they’re heroes,” she said. “They’re still convinced they did the right thing.”

The university’s decision received mixed reactions, with some parents expressing relief and others vowing never to forgive Rutgers for initially implementing the mandate, according to Sinatra.

Many Rutgers alumni also continue to be vocal, some even vowing not to “give another penny to the school until they’re held accountable,” Sinatra said.

Lauren Palmer, a recent graduate of the University of Vermont who helped create the Student Declaration 2023 against “past, present, and future mandates,” told The Defender she was “amazed” Rutgers had held on to the mandates for so long.

Palmer talked about the shaming of the unvaccinated on campuses and, when mandates were lifted, about the “absolute silence” of fellow students who no longer wanted to discuss them.

“Because we’re the next generation of upcoming leaders and workers, if we don’t reflect on what’s just happened over the past three or four years, we’re probably doomed to repeat it at some point,” she said.

Healthcare students off the hook — but not at all colleges

Sinatra said it was “a huge deal” that the cessation of mandates at Rutgers encompassed healthcare students and staff, including those in clinical settings.

Many such students had been forced to take the vaccines at Rutgers and other schools up to this point — even at schools that had lifted the mandates for the general student population.

Rutgers joins Harvard University, which several weeks ago suspended its vaccine requirements for all students, including healthcare students, according to Sinatra.

This move sets the two schools apart from others like Johns Hopkins, which recently lifted its general student mandate but maintained the vaccine requirement for those in healthcare settings, she said.

Given that Harvard and Rutgers were the first two colleges to announce COVID-19 vaccine mandates in 2021, Sinatra expressed hope that this decision signals the beginning of the end for COVID-19 vaccine mandates at the remaining 40 or so colleges that still have them in place.

She also highlighted the potential impact of continued COVID-19 mandates on university enrollments, as some families have chosen to avoid these schools altogether.

“From what I’m hearing from parents, from the noise that we’re making on social media, there are families that are completely taking these colleges off their list because these mandates were in place for so long,” she said.

Rutgers’ controversial mandate and CHD’s pushback

Rutgers University was the first university in the nation to announce that it would require students to take COVID-19 vaccines for the fall 2021 semester, threatening to disenroll students who did not comply.

Many were surprised by the decision, as the university had stated in January 2021 that the vaccine would not be mandatory.

In response to the mandate, CHD and 18 students filed a lawsuit against Rutgers on Aug. 16, 2021, arguing that “All people have the right to decide their own medical treatment — especially, to decide what to inject into their bodies.”

The complaint also alleged that Rutgers had a financial incentive to require vaccination, as the university was involved in COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

On Sept. 27, 2021, U.S. District Judge Zahid N. Quraishi denied CHD’s efforts to obtain a temporary restraining order against the university.

The case was eventually dismissed in October 2022, prompting CHD to appeal the decision.

In February 2023, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on an appeal filed by CHD and 13 of the students who had originally sued Rutgers. The court said Rutgers had a rational basis for the mandate as part of its efforts to curb the pandemic on campus.

The ruling also noted there is no “unqualified right to attend a university, let alone the university of one’s choice, without conditions.”

Despite a dissenting opinion from one of the judges, who argued that the students should be allowed to amend their complaints given the shifting circumstances surrounding COVID-19 vaccine policies, the court ultimately ruled in favor of Rutgers.