Brief # 53 Education Policy
Outlook for Covid-19 Vaccines in School Communities
By Emily Carty
January 26, 2021
Vaccines have been required or recommended in schools for decades now. The CDC urges families to vaccinate their children against chicken pox, measles, and a handful of other illnesses in order to protect their own children as well as the general public. While this is just a recommendation, all 50 states have some laws in place requiring students to be vaccinated against certain diseases and in certain situations. For example, the state might require students of public schools to have certain immunizations while students in private schools are exempt. Nevertheless, there are ways to circumvent these requirements with medical, or in some cases, religious or philosophical exemptions. Forty-five states have religious exemptions, and 15 have philosophical exemptions — California, New York, Maine, Mississippi, and West Virginia only have medical exemptions.
The US has a long history of requiring vaccines for school, with the Supreme Court upholding the requirement as early as 1922. Mandatory vaccinations, with their co-existing exemptions, have proven to be the most important US public health initiative of the past century, nearly eradicating many contagious diseases that used to be commonplace. But the rise of anti-vaccination efforts and biased or misleading information in the media has threatened the success of vaccination programs, with higher exemption rates leading to higher infection rates.
In the wake of US citizens’ growing mistrust of the media, thriving conspiracy theory groups, and anti-maskers, public health officials have made special efforts to educate the public on vaccines and safety considerations. With Covid-19 being a highly contagious disease, officials seek to gain control of it through vaccinations and other precautions such as face masks. History tells us that schools and children are a major component to reaching herd immunity. While risks are lower for serious illness in kids with Covid-19, they can still transmit the virus to more vulnerable community members, which is why vaccinating school-aged children will be critical in fighting the spread of the virus. Plus, families are already used to childhood vaccinations, and pediatricians are used to administering vaccines.
That being said, what does the history of vaccines in schools and current political climate tell us about how the Covid-19 Vaccine rollout might unfold? For starters, many are asking if it will be added to “required” lists once it is widely available and safe for young children. In the past, vaccines were developed over longer periods of time, so it is understandable that individuals are questioning the safety of a rapidly developed vaccine. Nevertheless, rigorous studies and safety protocols are in place to ensure the vaccines will be safe for children before they are put on any required list.
Moderna and Pfizer are just starting clinical trials of the vaccine in adolescents, and they aim to begin more trials for younger kids later this year. Nevertheless, these results will be slower going than the current vaccine, which was approved under an emergency FDA order. So while we wait until the vaccines are ready, school officials are planning well ahead to confront the issue of mandatory Covid vaccinations.
Los Angeles Superintendent of Schools has been the first high-ranking school official to acknowledge that once youth vaccines are widely available they will be added to the roster of mandatory vaccines. Some public health officials don’t want to rush the requirement in schools, but at the same time they are urging drug companies to include more children in the clinical trials. Once adults get vaccinated, and later once children get vaccinated (voluntarily), we can begin to talk about mandatory vaccinations and address issues of herd immunity, personal choice, and public safety. While we must wait patiently, the most realistic path towards the urgent, safe reopening of schools would be to prioritize teachers and school staff for the Covid vaccine.
Teachers and education associations are calling on government leaders to officially add them to the priority list, especially if those same government leaders are pressuring schools to open for in-person learning. If certain grades or classes are officially set to reopen, vaccination plans should prioritize those certain teachers, at least until the general public, including children, are able to get vaccinated. Additionally, the implementation of clear, concrete, and consistent guidance on Federal and State levels will be crucial to decreasing fear and increasing support for vaccinations and school reopening plans in general.
A major win for teacher unions and activist groups was President Biden calling on states and counties to prioritize school staff (after healthcare professionals, of course) so we can be one step closer to safe reopening of schools. So far however, inconsistent vaccine supply and confusing rollout plans have left school communities with questions — in California, small counties have already started vaccinating interested school staff, while some larger counties still don’t know when the vaccines will arrive or how they will distribute them to school staff. This uneven vaccine landscape is playing out across the nation, where spontaneous vaccine shipments might alter the rollout plan at a given moment.
As of January 22, 2021 — 13 states are allowing teachers to be vaccinated, 1 state permits teachers over 50, and 7 states vary by county or other eligibility factors. On the same note, while teachers may be eligible for the vaccine, it leaves a grey area for other school staff, who are also likely to be in contact with students. While they might be deemed as frontline essential workers in the eyes of the CDC, they might be lower on the vaccination list than teachers or might not be specified in the priority list, we must encourage public health leaders to take this into consideration when prioritizing workers and when opening schools.
The vaccination of teachers is off to a promising start so far. Activists across the nation are calling on our new President and local leaders to prioritize equitable distribution of vaccines so we can get our country back up and running safely for everyone. With increased education regarding the Covid vaccine, consistent information, and a clear, structured distribution plan, we can all look forward to returning to schools as safely as is possible until Covid-19 becomes a disease of the past.
American Academy of Pediatrics – This professional association of Pediatricians has a page dedicated to ways to take action to promote healthy living for kids. Check out their resources for an impressive list of policy areas affecting children. Sign petitions and send letters to your congress people for state or federal policy issues.
National Education Association – The NEA’s advocacy page is a great resource for finding policy areas that affect school children and teachers alike. Use their fill-in forms to write messages to your representatives about Covid-19 resources, and support for school communities.
National Association of School Nurses – Check out NASN’s list of ways to take action to support health and wellness for school-aged children. Get involved with their advocacy efforts by signing up for their newsletter, donating, or learning about their policy stances and writing your representatives.
Voices for Vaccines – Voices for Vaccines: Parents Speaking up for Immunization, provides tools to talk about vaccines, learn more about vaccines, and take action to promote immunization in children for preventable diseases in your community. Check out their section on Covid-19 to learn about the vaccine for children.