Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Should COVID Vaccines Be Required for Students?

Every state has a list of required vaccinations for schoolchildren. These mandatory vaccinations ensure that schools are a healthy and safe place to learn.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than half a million Americans and 3 million worldwide, is the most serious contagious health threat facing the world. The FDA has approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for teens 16 and older. It’s also on the cusp of being available to children 12 and older, with emergency approval expected next month.

Should this vaccine be added to the list of required shots when students return in the fall?

At first blush it makes sense, considering that the pandemic has led to millions of students being out of classrooms for more than a year. Developing a vaccine that is effective at preventing serious illness was the crucial first step to ending the pandemic. Just as important, however, is getting it in the arms of as many people as possible. This is what prevents the virus from continuing to mutate and infect people. Already, the newest mutated strains are 50% more contagious than the original COVID-19 strain, and they are more likely to cause serious illness.

But this fall will be too soon for public schools to mandate the COVID shot.

The vaccine has been approved with emergency use authorization, which speeds up vaccine manufacturing and administrative processes during a public health emergency. It does not mean shortcuts are taken in the development, research, trials or studies of possible side effects. But given this EUA status, the legality of states making it mandatory is unclear.

Dr. Kelly Moore, deputy director of the Immunization Action Coalition, which works to increase immunization rates to prevent diseases, said addressing parents’ questions and concerns about the vaccine should be the top priority right now.

“You cannot take a shortcut to getting high vaccine coverage by making a requirement without going through the education process,” she said. “Families need to be able to ask questions and learn about it. A vaccine requirement tends to be much more acceptable when the vaccine is already in widespread use.”

There will always be holdouts and loud critics of vaccines, and social media can be used to spread misinformation more easily than ever. However, the vast majority of people are glad to prevent illnesses like polio, measles, mumps and rubella through inoculations. Around 90% of school children receive these well-known, established vaccines.

Newer ones require a thorough education period. There are examples of past missteps in this process -- the HPV vaccine, for one. As soon it was approved and recommended for teens, some jurisdictions tried to require it.

“There was this huge backlash against it,” Moore said. Parents were fearful of possible side effects and uncomfortable with the idea of inoculating children against a virus transmitted by intimate contact.

The HPV vaccine is “one of the most effective we have,” Moore said. “It will prevent thousands of deaths from cancer, and yet it still has an undeserved bad reputation because of that history.”

In the near future, the COVID vaccine will gain full FDA approval. Perhaps as early as next year, states will consider making it mandatory in certain settings. But until then, debunking the myths around the vaccine, educating people about the benefits of getting it and the risks of skipping it should be a top public health priority.

It’s only when communities are able to reach herd immunity thresholds that we can protect those whose health conditions prevent them from getting immunized.

Currently, private institutions can mandate the vaccine. More than 90 colleges and universities have announced that students must be vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall.

Hopefully, this will be another positive step in helping people realize these vaccines give us an opportunity to regain what this pandemic has stolen from us.

The more who get on board willingly, the better for everyone.