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COVID-19 vaccinations for ages 5-11 offer another shield in defense of in-person school
The United States is on the cusp of a COVID-19 vaccine approved for younger children. Many Oregon school leaders will embrace the option for another layer of protection against disruptive illnesses and quarantines, but they are unlikely to require it.
The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use approval Friday, Oct. 29, for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11. On Tuesday, Nov. 2, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will review the vaccine, the last federal hurdle before state approval and distribution. Students could be receiving the vaccine within a week.
The FDA has already given full approval to the Pfizer vaccine for people 16 and older and emergency use approval for vaccines for ages 12 and older.
The younger children’s vaccine would be a one-third dose, administered in two shots three weeks apart. The first students could be fully vaccinated before the winter holiday break.
A vaccine for ages 5-11 would mean nearly all school-aged children could be vaccinated, but evidence indicates the state will struggle to reach much more than two-thirds vaccinated in the near future. That’s too low for so-called “herd immunity” when enough people are protected to limit a disease’s spread.
Statewide, 72% of adults over age 18 are fully vaccinated, according to state vaccination data. Among people 12-17, 63% have received at least one dose.
Nationally, about 30% of parents say they will vaccinate their young children right away and about 30% say they definitely won’t, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Oregon school leaders consider vaccinations a key component to keeping children in school. Not only does it protect them from illness, but it also means students don’t have to quarantine if they are exposed to COVID-19. Quarantines for staff and students are the chief barrier to in-person education right now.
Schools are planning community education campaigns and school clinics to encourage vaccinations, but few are likely to require shots.
South Coast Education Service District Interim Superintendent Charis McGaughy said local administrators are still dealing with the paperwork and accommodations for the staff vaccination mandate, which had a mixed reception, she said. There is little appetite for a student mandate, she said.
A DHM Research poll in September showed that two-thirds of Oregonians supported a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for staff and students age 12 and older, with significantly stronger support among Democrats and in the Portland area.
At least three Oregon school boards – Corvallis, Portland and Ashland – have shown interest in a student vaccine mandate for older students.
The Portland School Board is scheduled Nov. 16 to consider several options for making vaccinations mandatory for older students. Parent and student feedback appears to support the mandate, with Grant High students walking out Oct. 26 to show their support. But the board also had to move a board meeting online because of anti-vaccination protesters.
Ashland is studying a limited mandate for students in high exposure settings, such as athletics, according to the Mail Tribune. Some students have asked for a mandate.
Board Chair Eva Skuratowicz said Monday that the board is slowing the process down and will be taking its time to consider all the ramifications.
The Corvallis School Board decided Oct. 14 that the district needed more community education and engagement, particularly with communities of color.
Superintendent Ryan Noss reported that 68% of eligible students are vaccinated but that the rates for Latino and Native American students are around 45%. Statewide rates show a similar disparity for communities of color.
“More work needs to be done to make sure we can keep our students safe and keep our schools open,” said Board Chair Sami Al-Abdrabbuh. “That work needs to be done through an equity lens.”
The district is planning school clinics, and that accessibility gives Al-Abdrabbuh hope.
“The only way we can get out of this pandemic is a strong package of mitigation and prevention tools,” said Al-Abdrabbuh, Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus president. “A mandate is not a solution by itself. Helping kids to be safe is the solution.”
Parents and school leaders are worried Gov. Kate Brown will make vaccines mandatory for Oregon students, as she did with school staff, government employees, and health and safety workers. Brown’s office did not answer a request for comment.
California is the only state to require vaccines for students, but it won’t kick in until July at the earliest.
School leaders say vaccines are key to keeping schools open during a pandemic and protecting vulnerable teachers and students. But requiring shots could alienate parents and block some students from public education. School leaders also worry about dictating medical choices to parents.
Silver Falls School Board Chair Jonathan Edmonds said the district lost about 10% of its students during distance learning. He estimated it would lose another 10% if they required a vaccine.
Parents such as Luke Summers, a Silver Falls father of five, say they will pull their children from schools if they are required to get a vaccine.
“We don’t trust them, and we don’t believe they are safe,” Summers said.
Summers’ family situation reflects the complexity of the resistance. Summers said he is a 20-year National Guard member who will consider leaving the service rather than get vaccinated. He has received other vaccinations to deploy but is suspicious of how quickly the COVID-19 vaccines have been approved.
“This one is different,” he said. “I believe this one has been overly politicized.”
He said that although he believes in vaccines’ efficacy, his wife has a genetic condition likely passed onto the children that makes vaccinations dangerous. And yet, if it comes to it, he says he would apply for a religious exception based on how the vaccines were created rather than a medical one.
He said his children would leave public schools if they couldn’t get exceptions and that would be bad for them.
“We don’t want to homeschool them,” he said. “They thrive in the classroom.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA