NEWS

Can Schools Make a COVID-19 Vaccine Mandatory?

girl getting a vaccine

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Key Takeaways

  • The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for kids ages 6 months and up.
  • Schools may eventually require COVID-19 vaccination alongside other childhood vaccines, but not soon.
  • Factors like full FDA approval and the global and local prevalence of COVID-19 will play a role in deciding if and when schools will mandate the vaccine.

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is available to all children ages 6 months and up. The vaccine has full Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for use in those 12 and up and emergency use authorization (EUA) for ages 6 months to 11 years. As school-age children have become eligible for vaccination, parents wonder if public school systems could make it mandatory for students to get vaccinated.

"Different schools will have different thresholds for creating mandates. There are some that have already talked about instituting mandates; others may wait," says Kawsar Talaat, MD, associate professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Kawsar Talaat, MD

The vaccines are safe, the vaccines are effective, and they are a good way to keep our kids healthy and to keep our kids in school.

— Kawsar Talaat, MD

American public schools require children to receive all of the routine vaccinations recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). However, parents who don't want their kids to adhere to these guidelines can typically seek special permission for an exemption. Some parents wonder whether that will be the case with the COVID-19 vaccine.

"The vaccines are safe, the vaccines are effective, and they are a good way to keep our kids healthy and to keep our kids in school," says Dr. Talaat. "Having said that, mandates do work, but they have a lot of pushback against them, so encouraging people and trying to get people to be vaccinated voluntarily might be a better way to do that."

Schools might consider several factors in determining whether or not children should be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to attend school.

Full FDA Approval

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine now has full FDA approval for children and teens over the age of 12. But for kids under 12 and under 18, Pfizer and Moderna respectively, are being distributed "under an emergency use authorization [EUA], which is a much shorter process than what is required for a vaccine to be fully approved by the FDA," says Reagan Anderson, DO, FAOCD, FAAD, FASMS, MPH, and former combat physician.

The Moderna vaccine received FDA approval for people 18 years and up on January 31, 2022. Full FDA approval is a lengthy process that involves evaluating data from the vaccine manufacturer, including:

  • Details about the manufacturing process
  • Inspection of the vaccine facilities
  • Preclinical and clinical data
  • Vaccine testing results

This process usually takes years; however, the full approval of the Pfizer vaccine for 12 and older came less than a year after its EUA. It isn't clear whether a timeline for full FDA approval of a children's vaccine will follow a similar pattern.

Kawsar Talaat, MD

It requires so much work on behalf of the people who are applying as well as those who are reviewing.

— Kawsar Talaat, MD

"It requires so much work on behalf of the people who are applying as well as those who are reviewing," says Dr. Talaat.

The lack of full FDA approval in those age groups doesn't mean the vaccine is unsafe by any measure, only that schools may have difficulty mandating something that hasn't yet received official FDA approval like other required vaccinations.

Pfizer's vaccine for children ages 6 months to 11 years is currently operating under emergency use authorization (EUA), as well as Moderna's for those under 18. Full FDA approval is a lengthier process, which some school districts may wait on before discussing COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The Risks of Kids Spreading COVID

Scientists now know that kids spread the virus the same as adults. That means they can spread COVID-19 in lots of circumstances, including:

  • When they are asymptomatic
  • When they have mild symptoms
  • When they have non-specific symptoms
  • When they don't know they are infected

When a community has higher rates of COVID-19 infection, it is more likely that COVID-19 will spread in local schools. Layered prevention strategies as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

These measures, which include wearing masks, getting vaccinated, physical distancing, testing, and screening, all reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools. However, not all schools adhere to such guidelines.

The Risk of the Virus Compared to the Vaccine

Finally, one of the most prominent factors schools will have to consider when it comes to potential COVID-19 vaccine requirements is the fact that kids are often only mildly affected by the virus.

As of November 17, 2022, almost 15 million American children have been infected with COVID-19. Nearly one million of those cases occurred in the last week of January 2022. Since the pandemic began, children have made up 18.3% of cases.

Kawsar Talaat, MD

Yes, it’s a generally mild disease in kids, but it can be an incredibly serious disease in kids, and it can be a fatal disease in kids, and the best way to prevent that and to keep them healthy is by vaccinating them.

— Kawsar Talaat, MD

Children accounted for 1.6% to 4.4% of hospitalizations among states reporting data. In addition, as of July 6, 2022, 829 kids ages 5 to 18 and 431 kids under 5 have died from COVID-19.

"Yes, it's a generally mild disease in kids," says Talaat, "but it can be an incredibly serious disease in kids, and it can be a fatal disease in kids, and the best way to prevent that and to keep them healthy is by vaccinating them."

What This Means For You

Like everything related to the COVID-19 pandemic, this is an evolving situation. Thankfully, kids of all ages (6 months old and up) can now receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Once these vaccines become officially approved by the FDA for all ages, policymakers, scientists, and health experts will make a determination on whether they should include the COVID-19 vaccine with other mandated childhood vaccine requirements for schools.

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.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stay up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines.

  2. Food and Drug Administration. Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: FDA authorizes Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines for children down to 6 months of age.

  3. Food and Drug Administration. Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: FDA takes key action by approving second COVID-19 vaccine.

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA approves first COVID-19 vaccine.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Science brief: Transmission of SARS CoV-2 in K-12 schools and early care and education programs.

  6. American Academy of Pediatrics. Children and COVID-19: State level data report.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Provisional COVID-19 deaths: Focus on ages 0-18 years.

By Christin Perry
Christin Perry is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has been published in The Bump, The Knot, Scary Mommy, LittleThings, Parents, Qeepsake, and more. She has experience writing email marketing campaigns, website copy, and SEO-optimized content. Christin is also a mom of three.