Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine was authorized for use in children as young as 12 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week – but do not expect schools to require shots for students anytime soon given public hesitation and political hurdles.
State governments for the most part can order a vaccine be required for a child to attend a K-12 public school, said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a University of California-Hastings law professor who researches school mandates and the legal issues around vaccines.
In all but a handful of states, a measure must pass the full legislature to be added to the mandatory vaccine list, Reiss said. No state government has mandated COVID-19 immunizations for schools, she added.
There is increased hesitancy over the shots because some of them rely on the newer mRNA technology and have been authorized on an emergency-use basis. Early studies also indicate children are far less susceptible to grave health complications from COVID-19, though they are not without risk and can transmit the disease.
Reiss said it is highly unlikely state legislatures will push through mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for children this year.
“It takes political capital, and my bet is that legislators will not even try until they can do it for children aged 5 and up,” she said. “They will not want to go through the process twice.”
It is clear proponents of mandates could face opposition. Even before vaccinations were approved for younger adolescents, Republican lawmakers in dozens of statehouses filed bills seeking to block COVID-19 vaccination mandates, mostly arguing the vaccines are too new to force people to take against their will.
In Kansas, Republican state Senator Mark Steffen, an anesthesiologist, crafted a bill that would strip the state’s department of health of its power to add a new shot to the existing list of required vaccines. The bill remains in committee.
“It’s a vaccine that is experimental, a vaccine that is gene-manipulative,” Steffen said during a March hearing on the bill. “Its long-term dangers won’t be fully known for decades.”
Researchers from Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern and Rutgers universities, who are part of the COVID States Project, surveyed nearly 22,000 people nationwide in April and found that over a quarter of mothers were “extremely unlikely” to vaccinate their children.
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Because of such reluctance, education leaders should not focus on mandating shots, said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT)union.
“Right now it’s about convincing people of their efficacy,” she said of vaccines. “We have to build trust and confidence, particularly amongst our Black and brown parents who have borne the brunt of COVID.”
Yearning for normalcy
Weingarten and others representing school leaders and staff noted wide agreement that vaccines are key to a more normal school experience.
In a sweeping policy speech given on Thursday in Washington, Weingarten said in-person learning, five days a week across the country must take place in the fall.
She said that ATF polling of parents shows that vaccines – along with social distancing, masking and testing – were mandatory to winning parents’ confidence in sending kids back to school. Recent polling by the ATF and the NAACP shows 94% of parents would be comfortable with their children attending school in-person with those safety measures in place.
The Los Angeles Unified school district, the second-largest in the country with nearly 650,000 students, has been among the most proactive on vaccines for pupils. Fifteen vaccination clinics are located in L.A. schools.
Superintendent Austin Beutner said during a Monday news conference that he wants a vaccine available to every middle and high school student as soon as possible.
Some private schools are moving ahead with mandates. In Connecticut, students attending the 5th-12th grade St. Luke’s school in New Canaan learned on Tuesday that they must take the COVID-19 vaccine to attend in the fall.
Mark Davis, the head of St. Luke’s, said the mandate was made in conjunction with a health task force, largely composed of parents who are physicians.
Key to the policy was guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated people do not need to quarantine if exposed to the coronavirus. That means kids would almost certainly remain in the classroom full-time if they got the shot.
Most parents of the school’s nearly 600 students overwhelmingly support the mandate, Davis said, adding that four or five families expressed concerns.
Davis said he understood COVID-19 has set off pitched debates, but pointed to the long history of mandated vaccines for diseases such as polio and whooping cough and the benefits of in-class learning for kids.
“It’s such a shame that the issue of vaccines has become politicized,” Davis said. “It’s a critical step toward a much-needed return to the school experience that we all yearn for.”