On May 12, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was approved for 12-15 years old, making almost all junior high and high school students in FUSD eligible to receive a vaccine. With this recent development, middle and high schools across the nation are questioning whether or not they should mandate the vaccine for students attending in-person school for the 2021-22 school year.
State governments are unable to issue mandates that cover every school in the state because the COVID-19 vaccine is currently only approved for emergency use authorization (EUA). Under an EUA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can allow the use of unapproved medical products in cases of public health emergencies. Although COVID-19 vaccines are under EUA, the capacity that the different administrative state bodies, such as the state department of health, state department of education, individual school districts, and local departments of health, have for implementing compulsory immunization laws varies considerably from state to state. CA is one of the only two states along with West Virginia that allow their local counties’ Departments of Health to be responsible for vaccine mandates. This means that the Alameda County Public County Health Department can potentially instate a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all students aged 12 and above in Alameda County to attend in-person school when it resumes next school year.
If a vaccine mandate were to be put into place, only valid medical excuses, such as a weakened immune system or allergic reactions, would grant an exemption from the vaccine and allow a non-vaccinated student to still attend in-person school, in accordance with CA’s exemption principles for other vaccine mandates. CA’s Senate Bill 276, which recently went into effect on January 1, requires that doctors must send all vaccine exemptions to the California Department of Public Health for review and dissemination to schools.
The Smoke Signal’s Perspective:
Even with more than half the American adult population vaccinated according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 can still spread and impact the younger generation. As of May 18, only 4.1 million out of 25 million people ages 12-17 have been vaccinated. Without a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in place when school resumes this fall, public health and safety will be threatened and students’ and parents’ confidence in a safe school environment will plummet. The Alameda County Public County Health Department must mandate COVID-19 vaccines for students ages 12 and above to attend school in the fall.
Schools are supposed to be regarded as a safe haven for students, but a lack of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate lowers students’ confidence in the safety of their school environment. The Smoke Signal collected 90 responses through our student survey via MSJ’s Facebook groups from May 23 to June 1. Of the students who filled out the survey, 47.8% — those who responded with 1-3 on a scale of 1-10 from not comfortable at all to fully comfortable — felt uncomfortable with returning to in-person school without a vaccine mandate. Still, returning to school is a vital social goal among the community. The same survey showed that 63.4% of students preferred an in-person learning environment. Requiring COVID-19 vaccines enables students to feel comfortable while safely returning to in-person education.
In the case that vaccines are not mandated, safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 would be necessary. However, such measures, including daily temperature checks, physically distanced classrooms, and one-way traffic walkways, can cause distractions for students and teachers, compromising the school’s general productivity. Beyond decreased productivity, the lack of a vaccine mandate hinders traditional school events, shutting down an important aspect of in-person school: social interaction. Homecoming, Multicultural Week, Winter Ball, and even something as simple as lunch, would have to be held with a six feet social distancing rule based on current CDC guidelines that FUSD is following in their reopening plan, which could be avoided with a mandate. According to the CDC, “[Vaccinated individuals] can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations,” so a vaccine mandate can make our schools more safe, comfortable, and productive for students, teachers, and staff.
Depriving students of these regular interactions breaks the school’s sense of community. In addition, students no longer get to use passing periods or other breaks to engage with their friends, which can contribute towards feeling burned out. “In-person schooling will be even less social given that students will be wearing masks — so it’ll be hard to pick up on physical cues and read faces, staying at least 3 to 6 feet apart,” Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life Co-Author Michael Horn wrote on Forbes.
The benefits to a COVID-19 vaccination mandate are clear, with MSJ students and other counties in agreement. In fact, other school districts and systems in CA have already initiated their own vaccine mandates.
The University of California released a statement on May 4, saying, “Vaccination remains the most effective way to bring this pandemic to an end and to prevent a resurgence of the pandemic in local and campus communities … At this time, the COVID-19 vaccination requirement would be a permanent update to the University’s policies and would take effect beginning in the 2021-2022 academic year.” They have already shared details on their COVID-19 vaccination mandate policy for the next fall semester. Students planning to access UC campuses in the fall will need to update their immunization documentation on file to indicate vaccination or an approved exception or medical exemption prior to coming on campus.
Other CA counties have also begun mandating COVID-19 vaccines among their elementary, middle, and high school students. The Los Angeles County established a mandatory testing program after the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) reopened its schools on the week of April 12 prior to the approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children over 12 years old. LAUSD Superintendent Austrin Beutner noted that 72 district employees and 105 students had tested positive two weeks after the reopening. When the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved for children ages 12-15, Beutner supported mandating COVID-19 vaccines and said, “There are bound to be a few bumps in the road, but once everyone is used to being part of this comprehensive program, it’ll be worth it. It’s all part of our commitment to create the safest possible school environment.”
With 86.7% of MSJ students who responded to the Smoke Signal survey being at a comfort level of 8 out of 10 or higher if high schools decide to implement a vaccine mandate, what’s stopping our local health department from proposing such mandates?
Those wary of the new technology behind the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines may worry about their health consequences, such as mRNA supposedly altering a person’s genetics. Though the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are the first FDA-approved mRNA vaccines, researchers have been studying and working with mRNA vaccines since the 1990s. mRNA vaccines have been researched for much longer than vaccines for influenza, Zika, rabies, and cytomegalovirus. Research from the CDC shows that the mRNA which is injected into the body through the vaccine will not interact or do anything to the DNA of one’s cells. Contrary to what some critics believe, mRNA vaccines will not cause future mutations or give way to detrimental side effects.
The fact, according to Mayo Clinic, that children younger than 14 years old also have a low chance of being impacted by COVID-19 makes some parents reluctant to have their children get vaccines. While serious illness from COVID-19 is rare in children, it does occur — around 12% of pediatric COVID-19 patients in the U.S. have been hospitalized and nearly 1,000 Americans under the age of 24 have died. In addition, following a COVID-19 infection, there is a chance of multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). According to the CDC, 3,742 cases had been reported as of May 3, and 42% of them were between the ages of 10 and 20. So, although students may not be as susceptible to COVID-19, the vaccine can protect them from the potential health risks that stem from potential contraction of COVID-19. Beyond this, even if children have a slim chance of being seriously ill or dying from the virus and those around them are vaccinated, cases of COVID-19 will still cause massive disruption and inconvenience to those around them (which would be a lot of people with in-person schooling), if not pose as a direct danger. Just a few case of COVID-19 could cause whole schools to shut down for extended periods of time and create potential COVID-19 hotspots, making a vaccine mandate crucial.
The benefits of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate and the potential risks of not having one makes the choice clear: the Alameda County Public County Health Department must instate such a mandate to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and make our schools and communities safer, healthier, and happier.
Cover image by Opinion Editor Aria Lakhmani.