States back away from school COVID vaccine requirement

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After initial confusion over whether the COVID-19 vaccine would be required for student attendance, states are moving away from a vaccine mandate. Districts, which often look to their states for guidance on the issue, seem likely to follow suit. 

Earlier this month, for example, California, walked back on its plan to require the shot for students after initially postponing the mandate until July 2023. The decision came after President Joe Biden announced plans to end the national emergency brought on by COVID. Last year, Louisiana also decided against mandating the vaccine after initially proposing the idea in 2021

Only the District of Columbia — but no state — has so far mandated a student vaccine, according to a school vaccine mandate tracker compiled by the National Academy for State Health Policy.

This trend will likely continue despite recent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to include the COVID vaccine in routine immunizations for children 18 years old and younger, said immunization experts. 

While the CDC update helps “normalize” the vaccine and “sends a powerful message to both healthcare providers and the general public” to stay up to date with the COVID shot, it does not set any requirements, said Kate Grusich, spokesperson for the CDC, in an email. 

“It’s important to note that school-entry vaccination requirements are determined by state or local jurisdictions, and not by CDC,” Grusich said. However, she added that states and local jurisdictions may use CDC’s vaccine recommendations to develop school-entry requirements. 

But a number of factors still make it unlikely states will require the vaccine. 

“I don’t see that the vaccines will become required in the schools the same way that other vaccines are,” said Kawsar Talaat, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose research focuses on vaccines. “I see them being treated by schools the same way that maybe a flu vaccine would be — where it’s highly recommended.” 

Why schools are keeping shots optional

Talaat noted both a high level of population immunity and high vaccination rates among adults as some of the reasons for schools to move away from a COVID vaccine requirement.

It would also be difficult for school systems to regularly keep track of students’ vaccinations considering the frequency of COVID boosters, said Odis Johnson, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. 

The political climate and resistance from families are other reasons why schools may shy away from mandating the shot, Johnson said. 

During the thick of the pandemic, many red states prohibited schools from imposing mask mandates for in-person instruction and frowned upon vaccine requirements for school-related activities such as contact sports. More recently, legislation has been introduced in states like Virginia to prohibit children from being turned away by a school for not being immunized against COVID. 

So far, 21 states have banned student COVID vaccine mandates, per the NASHP tracker.

“I think even in the bluest of blue states, you might find the court system sympathetic to families who have decided that they’re not going to abide by vaccine requirements in public school,” Johnson said. “And so that probably had a chilling effect on school systems’ willingness to go there.” 

If schools do implement a large-scale mandate, they’re likely going to end up in court and lose, said Johnson.

According to an August 2022 poll conducted by Gallup, only about 40% of parents favored vaccination requirements, which was an even lower percentage than for nonparents. 

“I believe school systems have always had the power” to mandate vaccines, Johnson said. “But, in this time and with our politics, we just lacked the will and the ability to come together to move forward.”

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