I work at a large public university in Washington state. Until recently, many buildings on campus have been closed, masks have been required, etc. Campus is now opening up, and vaccination is required for students and employees unless they have medical, religions, or philosophical reasons for not getting vaccinated. Anyone who does not vaccinate is supposed to wear masks, but vaccination status is self reported by checking some boxes (no actual proof).

We have just received the following guidance:

Vaccination attestation information is private and confidential.

  • Instructors may not ask their students about their vaccination status, nor will they have access to students’ records or be expected to verify students’ vaccination status. Instructors may broadly inform students that individuals who are not fully vaccinated need to wear face coverings in the classroom.

It seems unreasonable to rely on the higher powers to somehow enforce what seems to be an essentially unenforceable mask mandate for unvaccinated people. I understand that asking questions about why someone has not been vaccinated, etc. may constitute harassment as it may force people to disclose information such as medical issues, etc. However, that does not preclude asking vaccination status as a yes/no question.

What are the ethical considerations surrounding this mandate? In the absence of such a mandate, is asking student vaccination status unethical? In the presence of such a mandate, what are potential consequences for doing so?

  • 7
    Are instructors permitted to require masks, possibly with exemptions if the student provides proof of vax status? What if the instructor is immunocompromised or otherwise high-risk? Jul 8 at 4:16
  • 3
    This has nothing to do with Academia. The same question would apply in any nonacademic organization. Jul 8 at 5:57
  • 9
    @AnonymousPhysicist Strongly disagree. Students are different than other members of the general public and may be protected by laws that don't apply anywhere else. Additionally, public universities in particular are branches of government and what they can do may differ from what private companies can do.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 8 at 14:52
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please use the chat for continued discussion, but see this FAQ before posting a comment below this one.
    – cag51
    Jul 9 at 15:43

It is usually, but not always, unethical for an employee to unilaterally decide that a policy of their institution — by any account, a policy reached after considerable debate and consideration — doesn’t apply to them and go against that policy; and it is particularly so when going against the policy means forcing or pressuring students who are subject to your authority to disclose private medical information.

Instructors have a right to a safe workplace, yes. Students have a right to privacy, and to bodily autonomy. And yet, people tend to get overly dogmatic about their rights and forget that rights are not absolute. “I have a right to X” almost never means “I have a right to X under any possible circumstances, even when my right to X will violate someone else’s right to Y”. So, both students and instructors have to give up something: in the case you are describing, the students will have to get vaccinated unless they qualify for an exemption, and disclose their vaccination status to the institution. The instructors will have to trust that the vaccination policy the institution put in place will be enough to ensure their workplace safety, and resist the urge to use their authority to compel students to disclose information they might feel entitled to. There is nothing unusual or ethically problematic about such compromises, it is exactly how ethics works in other contexts, and conceptually similar to lots of other situations we encounter in other areas of our lives in which the rights of two groups of people are in conflict and compromises need to be made.

In the end, any policy an institution chooses is going to offend some group of people. As long as the decisions were reached in a thoughtful and reasonable way and following applicable laws, the offended people don’t have much of a leg to stand on, legally or ethically.

  • 2
    Thanks for the response, I think it does a good job of explaining this situation. I do disagree with the generality of your first sentence though- there are plenty of situations where the morally correct choice is in direct conflict with an employer's policy. Jul 8 at 3:47
  • 2
    The conflict isn't remotely symmetric. Voluntarily unvaccinated people put everyone else at risk, even beyond the university. Moreover, the risk to others by refusing to get vaccinated is many orders of magnitude worse than the risk to the individual by requiring them to give up some "bodily autonomy." Jul 8 at 4:27
  • 2
    @ElizabethHenning I never said it’s symmetric. But it’s a fact that there are two groups of people and both are being asked to give up something they might care about strongly (yes, “bodily autonomy” is actually a thing despite you putting it in quotes). Maybe one of them is more reasonable in caring about it than the other, but the vaccination mandate itself is not really what this question is about, so I don’t see a need to discuss it here. OP was asking simply about the issue of reporting vaccination status and instructors being assured that all unvaccinated students are wearing masks.
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 8 at 4:38
  • 2
    Despite its popularity in some circles, the "bodily autonomy" framing is misleading because it doesn't apply in matters of public health. It's deceptive rhetoric that gets used to both-sides this issue, not unlike "skeptic." Jul 8 at 16:02
  • 1
    @ElizabethHenning sure, I see where you’re coming from. If I understand correctly you’re basically saying the phrase has some legitimate uses but has been politicized/appropriated by crazies and therefore one should avoid using it. Yeah, seems reasonable…
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 8 at 17:19

Any personal health information is usually deemed highly sensitive. Regarding health records specifically, many countries have laws strictly regulating broad aspects of such records with an eye towards preserving individual privacy. In the US, for instance, two Federal laws (FERPA and HIPAA) could apply to universities. The legal situation seems touchy, here's a link to recent guidance for instance PDF

In the absence of such a mandate, is asking student vaccination status unethical

Instructors are widely acknowledged to be in a position of authority over their students derived from discretion over grading. Asking a student to divulge sensitive private information of any sort, particularly information not especially relevant to an instructor's educational duties, is usually deemed inappropriate. This certainly applies to health information.

Ethical considerations are subjective. Assume you agree that the privacy of personal health information is extremely important. Most Universities in the US I've seen have intentionally constructed human and technical infrastructure for checking vaccination statuses and maintaining the privacy of such records. Presuming an instructor is aware of this and is not trained in handling such information sensitively, it seems unethical to me to put a student's privacy at risk trying to investigate personally when a more secure alternative is readily available.

  • It's not entirely clear to me that this information is irrelevant to instructional duties. As in instructor there is an obligation to foster safe environments for all students, and unnecessary exposure to a highly infectious disease could be categorized as an unsafe environment. Jul 8 at 18:07
  • 3
    @overfullhbox: You obligation is not to check (or rectify) all kinds of dangers personally. You presumably do not check in person the electrical safety of the lecture hall equipment but rely on your university technical services to do that, plus you hopefully call them when you have suspicions to some danger. I'd suggest to follow the same procedure for infection safety, just instead of calling someone qualified to deal with electrical issues, you call someone qualified to deal with student health issues and data. Jul 8 at 18:15
  • 3
    Perhaps instructional duties at your institution are more expansive than I've experienced. But usually instructors are in my experience responsible for instruction, not enforcement of physical safety. Would you think it appropriate for an instructor to physically remove a disruptive student, rather than call campus security to do it? The question of vaccine verification can be an ethically important policy matter at the same time an instructor attempting to enforce a policy themselves despite better alternatives can also be unethical. Jul 8 at 18:16
  • 6
    @overfullhbox yes it is “immediately clear”, because the institution has issued a policy that explicitly made it clear, by forbidding instructors from asking the vaccination status of students. I don’t see how it could be any clearer.
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 8 at 19:17
  • 1
    @overfullhbox If there were an absence of other enforcement mechanisms regarding vaccines at your institution, perhaps the question would be less clear. But that is not the case at Universities in the US, where there are specific administrators trained to do this for vaccine verification. A lab instructor may very well be responsible for safe operation of lab equipment. The difference is a lab instructor is a person trained to do this properly, whereas they are not trained to handle sensitive private health information properly. Jul 8 at 19:20

It is exactly because it is deemed unethical to inquire about a persons vaccination status (or any other health related issue), my institution did not make a difference between vaccinated and unvaccinated persons and is still requiring everyone to wear a wask (at least for now until the general vaccination numbers are higher).

I don't know if this an option in your case, but maybe you could just ask everyone to wear a mask BECAUSE you cannot and should not ask people if they are vaccinated or not.

  • 2
    I wouldn’t assume that an instructor has authority to compel a student to wear a mask when that student is already in compliance with the school’s mask policy. If the instructor is not authorized to make such a request, I’m pretty sure this advice will lead to all kinds of unnecessary conflict and ultimately won’t do anyone any good, least of all the instructor.
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 8 at 19:21

I was a graduate student and am now an employee in a medical school/clinical department at a public university in the US. Even though I have no contact with patients, it is required for me to be up-to-date on certain vaccines, in particular the annual flu vaccine. There is currently no such mandate for the COVID-19 vaccines, but this may change once those vaccines get full approval rather than approval emergency use. Employment status, including as a graduate student, is a bit different than student status legally, I believe, but that's not the important thing I wanted to mention:

Enforcement of this requirement has never been up to individual professors or supervisors. Some people may qualify for waivers to not get the annual flu vaccine, but there is a system and process for managing those waivers that goes through HR and the university's health service. That health service is bound by all sorts of additional laws like HIPAA (which may or may not apply to others like professors). None of this is an instructor's job, shouldn't be, and doesn't need to be.

I'm not sure what the best ways are to manage this information. So far my institution has used a hybrid approach, treating student housing residents a bit more strictly than the general student population (the argument being that you don't need to live in a dorm if those requirements are too onerous on you), asking for voluntary disclosure, and asking for compliance with the rules. They had a phone app for building access during the Spring semester that gave a "green light" for people allowed to enter buildings, but no one seeing that information knew the reason for the green light (or red, for that matter): it could be due to vaccination status, a recent test, or some other decision to exempt an individual. I think all these steps are reasonable compromises between personal health privacy and public health safety, but none of them rely on the discretion of instructors.

If you have concerns about how your university is handling these sorts of things, take it up with the health officials at your university. Don't try to implement any special policy in your own classrooms. Going against these policies could result in severe sanctions against you including loss of your position, especially in the case that anything you do brings legal risks or costs to your department or institution.

  • 4
    I'm not disputing your advice about compliance with policy, but the choice of policy is very heavily influenced by state-level politics rather than concern about community safety. So the covid vaccine is a little special. Jul 8 at 15:55
  • @ElizabethHenning I'm sure the specific pressures vary by locale, and yes of course there is a political aspect here. However, that doesn't change whether individual professors should make their own policies. Surely they can do what they feel necessary on an individual level to protect themselves, and they can lobby their university and local government, it's just not advisable to put themselves in the middle of a political fight, especially if it's going to put them on shaky legal grounds.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 8 at 16:16

There is no need here for the instructor to violate their students' privacy.

It seems unreasonable to rely on the higher powers to somehow enforce what seems to be an essentially unenforceable mask mandate for unvaccinated people.

Why do you think the situation should be different than from any other health-data related situation?

Where I am, if a student claims they're sick/disabled/..., it's not the instructor who judges the student's health status and what the appropriate measures are. This judgment is done by a medical professional (or possibly the disability office) who then writes an attestation saying what accomodation is appropriate, but never why.
Exemptions from mask requirements can be handled in the same way without unduly compromising privacy. Whether such an exemption is because they are vaccinated, because they already had the infection or even because some medical condition that means they should be exempted even if they are not immune is none of the instructor's business.

In addition, if your school doesn't offer any privacy rights compliant way for you to check, ask the respective office to send someone who is qualified to see that health data to check whether your students comply. This is their proper business.
But do not yourself violate your students' right to have their health data treated appropriately.

Would you hesitate to give first aid to a student because you don't know their hepatitis vaccination status?


Vaccination against coronavirus is spreading in many countries, and in the United States, a "train" with vaccines literally flies across all states, because the head of the White House, Joe Biden, promised to vaccinate 70% of the population by July 4. Nevertheless, some voluntarily continue to refuse doses of the vaccine. Some wondered why the issue of vaccination could be a problem, while others felt that it should remain a personal matter for everyone, and should not put pressure on their friends.

I think it's okay to ask this. You have the right to ask if your colleagues are vaccinated for example. They have the right not to answer, but then it is reasonable to assume that they are not vaccinated. The guys at my job who are vaccinated are happy to announce this. I believe that silent people are unvaccinated. Time will tell since vaccinations have to be confirmed in order to work.

  • 1
    I'm sorry, but the first paragraph is irrelevant, and the second is opinion without argument.
    – henning
    Jul 8 at 18:02
  • 3
    (-1) I see a whole lot of a difference between asking a colleague (with whom you are on the same level of power) all kinds of questions and asking someone who is under your power questions whose answer belongs into a specially protected kind of data, such as health data. Jul 8 at 18:06
  • 1
    Wouldn't a train that flies be a plane? Jul 8 at 19:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.