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Can Schools Require COVID-19 Vaccines?

As Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine was approved for those as young as 12, back to school could look similar to previous years. As millions of students return to school in the fall, there is discussion whether COVID vaccinations will be required. The short answer is it’s complicated. The long answer is it’s complicated and depends on where you live.

Each state sets and enforces which vaccinations are required to attend daycare centers, private and public schools. All 50 states and Washington D.C. have a mandate that requires vaccines as children enter school. 

a nurse holding a syringe before administering a dose of coronavirus vaccine from covid-19

Exceptions to being vaccinated are made for several reasons. Medical exemptions are issued to those unable to receive vaccines due to medical reasons. In 44 states and Washington D.C., religious exemptions are permitted to those whose faith prohibits vaccinations. Fifteen states issue philosophical exemptions to those with personal, moral or other beliefs. Before COVID-19, 2.5% of kindergartners received vaccine exemptions in the 2018-19 school year. 

Some states may add the COVID-19 vaccine to their list of required vaccinations, while others may not. Discussion is occurring across the country from the local school district level to the Department of Education at the federal level. A Washington-based law firm, Morgan Lewis, has been advising colleges and high schools on this topic, believes that it will be a school-district-by-school-distinct decision. Some school districts will be very aggressive and require proof of vaccination, while others will not. Some concern is focused around the areas where vaccine hesitancy is prevalent. 

In states across the country, parents and students have pushed back against all vaccinations – not just COVID-19. In areas where students and parents are hesitant to receive a vaccination, students will be encouraged but not required to receive it. Those in low-income and minority homes are less likely to vaccinate their children. This is why many school districts will be encouraging students to receive a vaccination but not mandate a vaccine requirement.

COVID-19 Vaccination Plans at the College Level

Colleges are divided on whether COVID-19 vaccines will be required to attend in-person classes. Universities such as Northeastern, Cornell, Brown and George Washington have recently informed students that they must be vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall. The goal is to achieve herd immunity on campus, allowing restrictions that have been in place since March of last year to loosen. 

Some colleges will require proof of vaccination for students attending in-person classes in the fall. The challenge with providing proof of vaccination is that there is no widely accepted document confirming proof of vaccination. Potentially college students could provide the card received with their first shot, but they could easily be forged. 

Vaccine passports may be an opportunity to have a standard document certifying vaccination for COVID-19. This could be a way to provide proof of vaccination for those attending any school level, workplaces requiring evidence, and those traveling domestically and internationally. President Biden has confirmed that there are no plans for a national vaccine passport or certificate of vaccination.

Compounding this challenge, New York state has issued Excelsior Passes to residents who have tested negative or are fully vaccinated. This type of pass is used to attend events such as art performances and sports but could show proof of vaccination to workplaces, schools, and other activities where proof of vaccination may be required. In opposition, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed an executive order banning vaccine passports.

Other colleges are leaving the decisions around COVID-19 vaccines up to the students. As most college students are 18 and older, they are considered adults and responsible for making decisions around their health. Many of the on-campus college outbreaks were tied to socializing and partying.

Some colleges will not require students to be vaccinated before returning to school in the fall. Colleges like Virginia Tech feel that because the FDA permitted the vaccines’ use in an emergency capacity, they cannot legally require this vaccination. Once the FDA has given full approval, these colleges may be able to require a COVID-vaccination when returning to in-person learning.

Colleges may change their decision between now and the fall semester – requiring vaccinations before students can attend in-person classes. Dartmouth College, amongst others, is waiting for vaccine shots to be more available before deciding whether vaccinations will be required.

Research Continues for Younger Aged Children

Both Moderna and Pfizer are studying the effects of children aged six months to 11 years old. These studies are expected to explore further whether different doses are needed for this age group. Pfizer expects to make their study results public in the fall. In the UK, AstraZeneca is testing their vaccine among  6-17-year-olds. In China, regulators are showing that the Sinovac vaccine is safe in children as young as 3. As research and testing continue, vaccine requirements may change and require those as young as six months to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

As no states currently have mandated COVID-19 vaccines for school-aged children and those in college, it will be up to school districts and individual institutions on whether they require or recommend COVID-19 vaccines for those aged 12 and older.