US Merchant Marine Academy Rescinds COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate

US Merchant Marine Academy Rescinds COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate
A midshipman walks across the campus of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., on Sept. 15, 2016. (Frank Eltman/AP Photo)
Katabella Roberts

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point, New York has rescinded its COVID-19 vaccine mandate shortly after Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) sent a letter to the academy’s superintendent claiming that the mandate violates federal law.

“As of March 10, 2023, [USMMA] has rescinded the requirement that midshipmen be vaccinated against COVID-19,” the U.S. Maritime Administration said in a statement. “Applicants for the Class of 2027 will be admitted without regard to their COVID-19 vaccination status.”

Congress removed the military’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement as part of the $858 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the fiscal year 2023 at the start of this year.

President Joe Biden signed the NDAA into law in December and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin officially rescinded the mandate in January.

However, the USMMA—which trains its midshipmen to serve as officers in the U.S. Merchant Marine, branches of the Armed Forces, and the transportation industry—was not covered by that decision because it is administered by the Maritime Administration, whose parent agency is the Department of Transportation (DOT).

USMMA’s vaccine policy has been in place since Oct. 20, 2021.

Banks Urges USMMA to Drop Vaccine Mandate

In its statement, USMMA defended its previous decision to require midshipmen to be vaccinated against the virus, arguing that it was needed to “help protect the health and safety of our Midshipmen on campus and while at sea.”

The academy spokesperson also noted that the decision to rescind the vaccine was made, in part, over the Department of Defense’s move to repeal the mandate. They did not address Banks’s letter.

“In light of the Department of Defense’s vaccine mandate rescission, and the availability of Sea Year training billets for unvaccinated Midshipmen on vessels, we reevaluated the need for the COVID vaccination,” the spokesperson said.

Banks had written to Kings Point academy’s Superintendent, Vice Adm. Joanna M. Nunan, on March 7 urging it to drop the vaccine requirement, arguing that the mandate violated school officials’ oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, according to the New York Post.
“As of today, the USMMA’s website says that ‘neither medical nor religious exemption requests will be accepted or processed for vaccination requirements,’” Banks wrote in the letter. “This statement appears to be a violation of your oath of office and an illegal attack on the constitutional rights of current and potential Midshipmen.”

Vaccine Status May Still Impact Midshipmen

The Republican also asked the school’s superintendent to hand over all written communications between the DOT and academy leadership “regarding the USMAA’s decision to prohibit religious exemptions for its COVID vaccine mandate and punitive measures toward current or potential Midshipmen who did not comply with this mandate,” according to the report.
Despite USMMA rescinding the mandate, as of March 13, the academy’s official website states that it “requires incoming students to provide proof of vaccination against a variety of diseases.”

“Starting with the Class of 2026, that list of vaccinations will include the COVID-19 vaccination per Academy policy,” the website states. “As a reminder, all incoming students are appointed Midshipmen in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) and therefore must also comply with the Department of Defense’s separate vaccination policy.”

The website still notes that medical and religious exemption requests will not be accepted or processed for vaccination requirements.

In confirming to the New York Post that the vaccine mandate had been dropped, the USMMA spokesperson noted that the vaccination status of Midshipmen may impact their ability to train on a vessel “if a COVID vaccine is required.”

“Commercial carriers’ COVID-19 vaccination policies vary,” the spokesperson said. “The USMMA will continually monitor carrier policies and alert a midshipman if their COVID-19 vaccination status will impact whether they can embark on a commercial vessel.”