Pediatricians Weigh In On If the COVID-19 Vaccine Will Be Required in Schools

child wearing a face mask at a school desk

Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • California is the first state to set up a COVID vaccination mandate for students in grades K-12, but several states have banned COVID-19 vaccine requirements in schools.
  • Some school districts around the country are independently adopting vaccination rules for certain students.
  • The Biden administration has not passed a federal law requiring students to be vaccinated, but it now requires teachers in large schools (100+ employees) to be either vaccinated or regularly tested.
  • Kids ages 5 and up are eligible for the COVID vaccine, and younger children may be eligible by early 2022.

Children as young as kindergarten age are now eligible to get the Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine through an emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that kids ages 5 and older get immunized, and the Biden administration has stressed that widespread vaccination in schools is crucial to end the pandemic. Meanwhile, states and cities wrestle with whether to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of vaccinations they require students to get in order to attend school.

The issue is a contentious one. Although one state (California) as well as several cities have outlined COVID vaccination requirements for students in middle school or high school, other states and school districts are challenging mandates, saying they are not inclusive of personal or religious beliefs.

Schools That Require the COVID-19 Vaccine

In October, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that all schoolchildren in California will need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as the FDA enacts full approval for their age group. Once the vaccine is fully approved for kids 12+, students in grades 7-12 will be required to get a vaccine. Likewise, vaccines will be required for grades K-6 after kids ages 5-11 get full approval. Illinois has passed a statewide vaccine requirement for students that is currently active, but it only applies to students in college or graduate school.

The Los Angeles Unified School District—the second largest in the country behind New York City—was the first major school district in the continental U.S. to put a vaccine requirement in place for students. The Board of Education passed an order in early September that mandated all students ages 12 and older must have the COVID-19 vaccine by January 2022 to enter in-person classes. Soon after, school districts in Oakland, CA and San Diego, CA set vaccine student requirements. (Oakland's mandate is for for children ages 12 and up by January 1, 2022. San Diego's mandate is for teens 16 and up by December 20.)

Other school districts around the country have followed suit, independent of state guidance, including Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts. Eligible students there who aren't vaccinated can attend class, but they can't participate in school-sponsored social events or intramural sports. Students who aren't vaccinated by January 3 will not be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities like clubs or theater productions.

Similarly, some school districts have opened the door to vaccination mandates by requiring that student-athletes be immunized against COVID-19 to help prevent the spread between schools. Schools in California, Hawaii, Maryland, and Virginia are among those who've passed orders mandating that student-athletes get the vaccine in order to participate in interscholastic sports.

Some schools insist teachers be vaccinated against COVID-19, even if they are not yet ordering students to be immunized. Federal law now requires teachers in private schools with at least 100 employees to be either vaccinated or regularly tested. Teachers in large public school systems face the same federal requirements if their state has an OSHA-approved occupational safety and health program (most states do).

Schools That Have Banned Vaccine Mandates

Though the CDC recommends the vaccine for anyone eligible, schools are not bound by these guidelines. This means school districts have the freedom to set their own vaccine mandates.

However, some school districts are limited by individual state laws. The Cincinnati Public School Board, for instance, discussed plans to require student COVID vaccination, but the state passed a bill preventing schools from requiring shots that have not received full approval by the FDA. At least 17 states now ban vaccine mandates for students, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.

Much of the pushback stems from the fact that the vaccine has not yet received full FDA approval (just authorization) in kids ages 15 and younger. Moreover, the COVID-19 vaccine is available for some students but not all in some schools, like ones that start in Pre-K or kindergarten. Anthony Fauci, MD, has said he believes the vaccine will be available for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers by spring 2022.

Maria Rosas, MD, a board-certified doctor in pediatric infectious diseases at Florida-based KIDZ Medical Services, says she believes that once the COVID-19 vaccine is available for children of all school ages, it will eventually be required by schools.

“All policy considerations for schools start with the goal of keeping students safe and physically present in schools,” she says. “Vaccines are one of the best preventive measures to create a safe environment for learning. Vaccination will decrease the disruption of education by significantly reducing outbreaks in school and keeping kids in school where they belong.”

The first step is the full FDA approval of the COVID-19 vaccine, not simply a temporary authorization. At this time, all 50 states have requirements for other vaccines in place for students, which is why Dr. Rosas believes adding the COVID-19 vaccine to that list is not out of the realm of possibility. It is just a matter of how soon it happens.

What Should Students Do to Remain COVID-19 Safe?

First, if your child is ages 5 or older, follow CDC guidance and sign them up for the COVID-19 vaccine if you haven't already. (They can get their COVID-19 shot at the same time as their flu vaccine.) It's important for parents to make sure their children take other precautions while in the classroom, especially if they are not fully vaccinated or are around many other children who aren't.

Pediatrician Sunaina Suhag, MD, of the Austin Regional Clinic, emphasizes the importance of masking in schools where vaccination is not widespread. Her recommendation for parents is to lead by example by wearing a mask in public places, even if it's not required. “Mask-wearing in schools where it is not required will be harder for kids to maintain, especially older children who are harder to motivate with ‘Star Wars’ and unicorn masks,” she says. “Start by explaining why wearing a mask is important and use data as support. Lastly, validate their opinion. ‘Yes, it’s annoying to wear a mask, but it is really important to wear one to keep safe and others safe.’”

Additionally, when parents get vaccinated, it helps protect their child from the virus, notes Zachary Hoy, MD, who specializes in pediatric infectious disease at Nashville Pediatric Infectious Disease. He says he believes it is important for parents of children not old enough to receive the vaccine to get vaccinated themselves.

Parents should also follow other preventive methods. “There are other strategies to decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission or illness severity, such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand hygiene, but these are not as effective as fully vaccinating,” he says.

What This Means for You

It is still unclear if all schools will eventually require the COVID-19 vaccine, especially when the FDA has not formally granted full approval of the use of the vaccine in children ages 15 and younger. The best course of action is to trust CDC guidance and have your child vaccinated against COVID-19 if they are ages 5 and older and therefore eligible for a shot under FDA emergency use authorization. For added safety, especially in schools were vaccination rates are low, encourage children to wear masks, stay properly distanced from others, and exercise good hygiene.

Was this page helpful?
5 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. National Academy for State Health Policy. States Address School Vaccine Mandates and Mask Mandates.

  2. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing; Emergency Temporary Standard.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Myths and facts about COVID-19 vaccines for children.

  4. Los Angeles Unified School District. About the Los Angeles Unified School District.

  5. United States Department of Labor. Emergency Temporary Standard - Frequently Asked Questions.