Can Schools Make a COVID-19 Vaccine Mandatory?

girl getting a vaccine

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Key Takeaways

  • There are two versions of a COVID-19 vaccine, though neither are yet available for school-aged children.
  • Kids will eventually be able to get vaccinated for COVID-19.
  • Getting the shot will be the key to returning to full-time, in-person school.

Two vaccines for the novel coronavirus have now been approved under an FDA Emergency Use Authorization. As we sort out who will get the vaccine and when, parents wonder if public school systems might make it mandatory for students to get vaccinated.

Public schools in America require children to receive all of the routine vaccinations recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Parents who don’t want their kids to adhere to these guidelines must seek special permission in order to gain an exemption. The question now is whether that will be the case with any of the new COVID-19 vaccines.

“The precedent has been set for public schools to mandate vaccines for their students. But this is not likely in the near future for the COVID-19 vaccine,” says Reagan Anderson, FAOCD, FAAD, FASMS, MPH, and former combat physician—at least not in the short term.

There are several factors to consider when it comes to whether or not school-aged children could be mandated to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

It Hasn’t Received Full FDA Approval

That’s something that could take as long as another two to three years, says Anderson. “The vaccines are being distributed under an emergency use authorization, which is a much shorter process than what is required for a vaccine to be fully approved by the FDA.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the vaccine is unsafe by any measure, only that schools may have a difficult time mandating something that hasn’t yet received FDA approval like other required vaccinations.

The Jury’s Still Out on Whether Kids Spread COVID

In the nine months since the coronavirus pandemic started, scientists haven't come to an agreement on whether or not kids play a major role in the spread of the virus. With some studies pointing the finger at kids as super spreaders, and others saying they don’t spread it as well as older people, it’s one of the biggest question marks of the pandemic.

Reagan Anderson, FAOCD, FAAD, FASMS, MPH

Mandating a vaccine for a virus that creates very low risk of serious side effects in this age group [about a 0.2% chance] would not be as easy as other vaccines that are known to greatly impact this demographic.

— Reagan Anderson, FAOCD, FAAD, FASMS, MPH

Because of that, schools are likely to have a much more difficult time mandating a vaccine as a requirement for attendance. Many parents could use this lack of concrete evidence as a reason to opt out of the vaccine. “It appears that children in schools do not seem to be ‘super-spreader events,’” says Anderson. “If this continues to be true, it makes the argument for mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations less viable.”

Most Kids Are Only Mildly Affected, If At All

Finally, one of the biggest factors schools will have to take into account when it comes to how to handle these new COVID vaccines is the fact that many, if not most, kids infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, or mildly affected.

What This Means For You

Like everything related to the COVID-19 pandemic, this is an evolving situation. Many months will pass before we’ll get to a point where kids of all ages can receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

By then, scientists and health experts may be better able to inform schools on an appropriate course of action to get kids back in school safely, and in a way that works for everyone.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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