Now that Pfizer’s Covid vaccine has been approved for children ages 12 to 15, more schools may be able to reopen fully in person this fall.
Yet the question remains whether schools will require students to get vaccinated.
“It’s always better to reinforce positive behavior rather than mandate,” said Bob Bollinger, a professor of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and inventor of the emocha Health app. “But we have a precedent of requiring vaccinations to go to school.”
In fact, for students enrolled in school, there are many vaccination requirements in place to prevent the spread of diseases such as polio, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.
All 50 states have at least some vaccine mandates for children attending public schools and even those attending private schools and day-care centers. In every case, there are medical exemptions, and in some cases, there are religious or philosophical exemptions, as well.
Now that it is approved for middle school-aged students, some states may add Covid-19 to their list of required vaccinations to attend school. In most cases, those vaccination laws would apply to both public and private schools and be subject to the same exemptions, depending on the state.
But it’s more likely it will be left to the schools to decide whether shots will be mandatory.
“Like everything with Covid, this is going to be a school-district-by-school-district decision,” said Sharon Masling, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based law firm Morgan Lewis. Masling has been advising high schools and colleges on how to handle the desire to have students vaccinated before returning to the classroom.
“Some school districts are going to want to be aggressive and see requiring vaccines as the way back to normal, whereas other districts may want to move more slowly, especially in areas where there is a lot of vaccine hesitancy,” she said.
Schools weigh in
The Eatonville School District in Washington state already hosted its own vaccination clinic for high school students soon after eligibility expanded to include everyone over the age of 16.
Ahead of the on-site vaccination day, information was sent to 350 families in the district. Of the 100 parents who followed up, only 50 said they would allow their child to be vaccinated. On the day of the clinic, just 27 of those students showed up.
Although the district will strongly encourage all students to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible, vaccine hesitancy remains a significant hurdle, according to Eatonville’s superintendent, Krestin Bahr.
That is part of the reason the school district would stop short of mandating vaccinations before returning to school in the fall, Bahr said.
Since students have been back in the classroom, “we are seeing a lot of mental health needs,” she said. Their priority is to keep those students in school and there’s a real fear that a requirement will drive some away, she added.
The public-school district in New Canaan, Connecticut, also recently held a vaccination clinic for students over the age of 16 and is poised to offer another one for those 12 and up now that the Food and Drug Administration approved shots for younger adolescents, according to Bryan Luizzi, superintendent of New Canaan Public Schools.
“Getting vaccinated is an extremely high-leverage mitigation strategy, and I am optimistic that the vast majority of eligible students and staff will be vaccinated by the fall,” he said. Still, “I do not anticipate requiring students to get vaccinated before the start of the new year,” Luizzi added.
Superintendents in other parts of the country also say that schoolchildren will be encouraged rather than required to get the Covid-19 vaccine — but for different reasons.
“In the state of Indiana, vaccinations have been highly politicized,” said Superintendent Jeffrey Butts of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township. Although masks are required in school, “residents and parents are pushing back,” Butts said. A vaccine requirement would be similarly rejected, he added.
For the 16,500 children in his district, the Covid vaccine will likely be on the recommended list much like the flu shot, he said.
In southwestern Idaho, it’s even less likely there will be a vaccine requirement, according to Jeff Dylan, superintendent of the Wilder School District.
The rural area with a high poverty rate has seen its share of coronavirus cases but there is no mask mandate at school, despite being in-person since September and “I don’t see our board at this time leaning toward the mandate for students to be vaccinated.”
It’s unlikely the vaccine will even be encouraged, Dylan said. “I think they’ll leave it alone and it’ll be up to the parents.”
For now, private schools are reserving the right to require vaccinations for students but are waiting on formalizing a policy one way or another, according to Myra McGovern, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools.
Already, hundreds of colleges and universities have announced that Covid shots would be added to the list of required immunizations for students returning to campus in the fall of 2021.
The difference is that college students are technically adults, Masling said. “They live in dorms, they go to packed parties and they are 18 and above.”
For parents of younger children, vaccine hesitancy remains a powerful obstacle.
Only 58% of parents or caregivers said they would vaccinate their children against Covid, despite 70% of parents saying they would vaccinate themselves, according to a March poll by ParentsTogether, a national advocacy group.
Low-income and minority households were even less likely to vaccinate their children, ParentsTogether found.
Still, experts see extending vaccinations to teens as a pathway back to an in-person education after so many schools struggled to stay open when cases spread through communities nationwide.
Reports of “significant” academic learning loss in school districts across the country underscored concerns about the toll virtual learning has taken on education at every level.
Going forward, a lot will depend on what happens across the country, Bollinger said. If schools can’t reopen because of high infection rates, “we may see more and more places requiring vaccinations.”
“If you can provide the incentives to get the vaccination rates high enough to reap the benefits, that’s great,” Bollinger said. “If you can’t, we are going to have to be thinking hard about other strategies to get us there.”