Conservative governors around the country are waging war against efforts to require mask-wearing in public schools. But as more than 50 million K-12 students return to school in the next six weeks, what will almost certainly be a more contentious issue looms: the Biden administration’s goal of having vaccine clinics in schools around the country.
Last week, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona revealed the administration’s “Return to School Roadmap” for schools to support vaccination efforts in their communities and rebuild after more than a year of largely remote education.
The roadmap, part of a larger push by the Biden administration to encourage vaccinations through trusted community leaders and institutions like churches and schools, was crafted to promote confidence in the vaccine by putting public schools at the center of the new push for vaccinations both for kids and adults.
“The American Rescue Plan has provided billions of dollars that school districts and institutions of higher education can use to create awareness and build vaccine confidence, host vaccine clinics, and provide incentives such as paid time off for staff to get vaccinated. Getting those 12 and older vaccinated is an important destination on the Return to School Roadmap,” a Department of Education spokesperson said, emphasizing that the ultimate goal is to get as many eligible people vaccinated as possible. “Schools serve as a pillar of communities and educators, students, and parents can all help ensure a safe and healthy school year by getting vaccinated.”
Cardona has criss-crossed the country this week pushing the roadmap, appearing with student athletes at a high school in Topeka, Kansas—where only 45 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated—on Monday to highlight the importance of vaccinations to helping students return to a normal life.
“We owe it to our students not to allow more disruption, and we know what works,” Cardona said at the event. “To those folks that are making poor decisions: don’t be the reason why schools close. Don’t be the reason students don’t have a season.”
“There’s no grey area here,” Cardona continued, noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was asking pediatricians to fold COVID-19 vaccinations into annual back-to-school physicals for athletes. “It’s safe, and I think it’s our way as a country to get back into school and give you the best opportunity to be in those extracurricular activities, those games, those clubs, in-person. You’ve suffered enough, we have got to get it done.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was authorized for people aged 12 and older in May, but young people remain far less likely than older adults to have gotten their shots. Though the nation has passed President Biden’s goal of having at least 70 percent of adults at least partially vaccinated, only 42.2 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds and 52.2 percent of 16- to 17- year-olds have received at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the administration’s roadmap—the Department of Education isn’t empowered to mandate the creation of vaccine clinics in schools, so it’s not quite a “plan”—faces logistical and legal obstacles to being as effective as the Biden administration hopes.
First and foremost is local opposition to schools being used to “indoctrinate” students into believing that coronavirus vaccines, which are safe and effective, are really safe and effective.
“I do not believe that it is necessary to put additional chemicals into my child’s body for an illness that she would fully recover from,” Ashley McKinnon, a Massachusetts parent, declared in online testimony before the Massachusetts legislature’s Public Health Committee last month during debate over a bill to standardize vaccine rules for students and faculty in the commonwealth. “You are proposing to take away my right as a parent and for what? To protect other people?”
Some localities are embracing the push. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that the first 400 minors to get vaccinated at one of three sites located in District public schools would receive free Apple AirPods.
But actually getting shots in arms for students over the age of 12 is more than a matter of AirPods and Benny Drama TikToks. Minors face difficult legal hurdles to even obtain a vaccine, regardless of their own willingness to get inoculated against a disease that is putting more and more kids in the hospital.
Forty-one states require parental consent for children below the age of 18 to get vaccinations against diseases like measles and influenza, and in Nebraska, consent is required even for 18-year-old adults. Some localities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., have implemented emergency policies allowing minors to self-consent for COVID-19 vaccination, (although in Arizona, doing so requires a court order), and medical experts have called for those laws to be relaxed. But others are digging in their heels to ensure that vaccine-hesitant parents have the final say on their kids’ ability to get the shot.
In Tennessee, the state’s top vaccine official was fired last month after she encouraged health-care providers to allow teenagers to receive a vaccination for COVID-19, telling doctors (correctly) that they had the law on their side.
“Specifically, it was MY job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19,” Dr. Michelle Fiscus said in a lengthy statement following her ouster as the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health. “I have now been terminated for doing exactly that… Our leaders are putting barriers in place to ensure the people of Tennessee remain at-risk, even with the Delta variant bearing down upon us.”
With nearly 40 percent of American adults still not vaccinated, the Biden administration now faces the challenge of encouraging the children of vaccine-hesitant parents who want the shot but cannot get it because their parents won’t approve.
“We are either helping our children, or we’re hurting our children,” Cardona said at the Topeka event. “There’s no grey area here. It’s safe, and I think it’s our way as a country to get back into school and give you the best opportunity to be in those extracurricular activities, those games, those clubs, in-person. You’ve suffered enough, we have got to get it done.”