Once a coronavirus vaccine is widely available for children, immunization will be required for students in Los Angeles to attend classes, the district’s superintendent said.
“The short answer is yes,” Austin Beutner, head of the country’s second-biggest school system, said Monday in answering a question about whether a vaccination will be necessary to come back to campus. “No different than students being vaccinated for measles and mumps or tested for tuberculosis before they come on campus. That’s the best way we know to keep all on the campus safe.”
“Families will always have the option for a child to stay in online learning and, therefore, not be on campus,” Beutner added, “but to go back to campus, yes.”
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The vaccine distribution campaign in the U.S., still in its infancy and hobbled by a weak rollout by the federal government, is being prioritized for health care workers and elderly individuals – though in many states other essential employees, including teachers, are beginning to receive the immunization as well.
It will likely be months before the vaccine becomes widely available for children, since drug companies are in the beginning phases of including them in ongoing vaccination trials. As it stands, the Pfizer vaccine can be given to people age 16 and older, but the Moderna vaccine is for adults 18 and older. Both drug companies have enrolled children as young as 12 in ongoing trials.
Children, who can and do contract and spread COVID-19, typically present with mild symptoms or no symptoms at all and, therefore, along with young, healthy adults, are set to be among the last to receive the vaccination.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced a $2 billion effort to reopen classrooms for in-person learning across the state – a welcome financial windfall for districts struggling to meet the costs for things like masks and sanitizing supplies, new ventilation systems, renovations to classrooms to make social distancing possible and more. The majority of the state’s 6 million students haven’t been back to school since they first shuttered at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last March.
But for nearly all of the state’s biggest school districts, no amount of money will allow them to provide in-person learning because of the rising levels of coronavirus infections. In Los Angeles, for example, nearly 1 in 3 students from some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods tested positive for COVID-19 during the week of Dec. 14, according to data from the school district, which is overseeing a testing program for students and teachers.
“COVID levels in Los Angeles are at dangerously high levels and getting worse,” Beutner said. “It’s not safe and appropriate when COVID levels are so much higher than the current state guidelines to even consider reopening school classrooms.”
With infection levels spiking across the country in the wake of the holiday season, many school leaders see the vaccine as the most effective way to get children back in schools – though most have stopped short of saying it will be required for students since the vaccines themselves aren’t yet approved for young children.
Pediatricians and public health experts largely acknowledge that once they are approved for younger children, a coronavirus immunization will be required in most school districts, perhaps as early as the start of the 2021-22 school year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is responsible for adding vaccines to the recommended schedule of childhood immunizations, but individual state legislatures mandate which vaccinations are required for school.
Most states mandate vaccinations for diseases easily transmitted in school settings, like polio and measles, while others may not require vaccinations for things like Hepatitis B or HPV, which are most often transmitted through intimate contact – even though such diseases are no less serious and the CDC recommends them for all children.
Notably, states allow for various exemptions from mandatory school immunizations. According to the Immunization Action Coalition, 45 states and Washington, D.C., allow parents to exempt their children from vaccination if it contradicts their religious beliefs, and 15 of those states also allow for personal or philosophical exemptions. Only five states – California, Maine, Mississippi, New York and West Virginia – do not allow either exemption.
Beutner said in the prerecorded video posted to social media that he hopes to use the same infrastructure the district established for its testing program to also distribute the vaccine to school staff.
“An enormous operational challenge lies ahead in providing the vaccine to essential workers in our schools,” he said. “The best place to provide the vaccine is at the place families trust and where students, staff and families are most days – their local public school.”