Until recently, schools had limited options to minimize the spread of Covid-19. They could screen for symptoms of the disease, query about contacts, and some venues could provide temperature taking and occasional surveillance testing. Many facilities attempted social distancing in classrooms and provided guidance to other safe practices including mask wearing and good hand hygiene.
After November 6, 2021, elementary schools were given their most powerful tool yet as Covid-19 vaccinations by Pfizer became eligible for the 28 million children 5-11 years of age.
Benefits of Vaccinating 5-11 year olds
Now schools had a quandary. They could certainly encourage parents of children in this age group to become vaccinated as data demonstrated numerous benefits including decreased hospitalizations and transmission of the disease. School administrators also could cite the precedent that all 50 US states had vaccination requirements for other diseases in this age group. National recommendations also held that vaccinations in children could allow safer participation in sports and other activities. Vaccinations in children could also dramatically reduce the spread of Covid by preventing transmission to siblings and parents who would further spread the disease. This practice could prevent innumerable deaths among older adults at multigenerational households and at holiday gatherings. Given the benefits, schools should by extension mandate and monitor the vaccination of school-aged children to receive Covid-19 vaccines in their communities.
Challenges with mandating vaccinations for students
First, the vaccinations were approved under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) only. This type of approval is temporary and implies that follow-up studies regarding safety and efficacy are warranted before full approval can be granted. The studies Pfizer performed for this vaccine included approximately 3000 children receiving the drug. Rare side effects could theoretically not be detected in this sample and now millions could be in line to receive the shot. Also, the follow-up was several months in this study and enough time may not have elapsed for other adverse effects to be seen. Mandating a vaccine that was studied under these circumstances and without full approval for children could be perceived as morally tenuous and subject to legal challenges. On the other hand, the vaccine did receive full approval in adults. Moreover, children desperately need the stability and educational benefits of conventional in-person learning.
Parents appear evenly split in three camps on whether their children should receive Covid-19 vaccinations at this time. Approximately one-third of parents will vaccinate their kids now, another third plan to wait and see before vaccinating their children, and a final third would not vaccinate their children now or in the future.
If only two-thirds of students are expected to get vaccinated, school administrators may not be able to implement a vaccine mandate for children to attend schools even though all evidence suggests these vaccinations may prevent outbreaks and subsequent school closures. Additionally, vaccinated children may require less masking and less home quarantining during school outbreaks of Covid-19.
Practicality is another issue. The pace of vaccinations could also pose problems. About a million children were vaccinated in the first week of vaccine availability. At this rate it would take about 6 months or more for all the children to be vaccinated.
Need for safe environments to continue to offer in-person learning
While all these issues appear complex and insurmountable, one fact remains clear: children learn and function better with in-person teaching. Any school ignoring this fact performs a disservice to its students. Each educational facility should provide as safe an environment as possible for its children during the pandemic. Planning a structured method to encourage and monitor vaccination for children should be a primary initiative. Collaboration between public health officials, administrators, and parents with a full understanding of all consequences including vaccine effects, detriments of distance learning, and the probability of school closures should be undertaken.
Vaccines for younger children have arrived. All stakeholders need to find solutions that keep children in school and allow the resumption of traditional learning.
Learn how CLEARED4 is helping keep students in school and benefitting from in-person learning from K-8 to college.