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

child wearing a face mask at a school desk

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Key Takeaways

  • The Los Angeles Unified School District is the only major school district to require COVID-19 vaccines for students so far.
  • Nine states have banned COVID-19 vaccine requirements in schools.
  • The FDA hopes to have a vaccine for school-age children by the end of the year.

As students head back to class for the new school year, parents are facing the question of what in-person classes will look like for their children. One big question currently looming is the possible requirement of the COVID-19 vaccine in schools.

Some cities and school districts have already implemented guidelines for vaccine requirements, with more expected to do the same in the near future.

Schools That Require the COVID-19 Vaccine

The Los Angeles Unified School District was the first major school district to put a vaccine requirement in place, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Board of Education passed an order in early September that mandated all students over the age of 12 must have the COVID-19 vaccine by January 2022 to enter in-person classes going forward. The school district had already required school employees to be vaccinated. They have also been offering weekly COVID-19 testing for all students and employees.

But while this school district—the second largest in the country behind New York City—has taken a step toward minimizing the spread of the virus, it is one of the only ones that has done so. The New York City school system put a mandate in place requiring school employees to be vaccinated by September 27. The vaccine is not required for students to attend school. Students who take part in organized activities, like sports, will be required to be vaccinated to be included.

Beyond these two large districts, the act of setting up a vaccine mandate has only barely been discussed elsewhere in the country. As of September 15, the Cincinnati Public School Board in Ohio had plans to draw up a vaccine policy similar to L.A.’s. A first draft is possible as early as September 24. However, it is unclear how quickly a policy would be implemented. It would require all students eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine to get one to attend classes.

Because the COVID-19 vaccine is not yet FDA-approved for children under the age of 12, many schools are still deciding the best plan of action for requirements. This is especially true in elementary schools where most students cannot yet receive it. It is possible that the COVID-19 vaccine could become required once it is safe for children to get, just like other school-required vaccines.

The FDA released a statement on September 10 saying that they will be carefully reviewing the vaccine data from manufacturers to be sure of its safety and efficacy for children before rolling it out. On September 20, Pfizer announced that their initial studies showed their vaccine to be safe and effective in children age 5 to 11. The FDA’s vaccine chief, Peter Marks, MD, PhD, told the Associated Press in early September that he is hopeful the vaccine will be approved for children by the end of 2021.  

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.”

Maria Rosas, MD

All policy considerations for schools start with the goal of keeping students safe and physically present in schools.

— Maria Rosas, MD

Schools That Have Banned Vaccine Mandates

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the vaccine for anyone eligible, schools are not bound by CDC guidelines. This means school districts have the freedom to set their own vaccine mandates. The list of states banning vaccine requirements is much longer than places where vaccines are required.

At least seven states have banned a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for students, according to reporting by CNN. CNN also reported that more than 30 states had introduced bills that would outlaw any kind of vaccine requirement. Not all of the states were successful in passing legislation and not all states included schools in these bills. 

Though some states have banned COVID-19 vaccine requirements in schools now, it does not mean that won’t change in the future, especially once the vaccine is approved for students of all ages. However, it is up to the states and school districts to decide if and when a vaccine will be required for students.

The first step is getting vaccines approved. From there, states and school districts will have to examine the safety and efficacy data on the vaccines to decide if putting a mandate in place is the right course of action. At this time, all 50 states have vaccine requirements 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?

Elementary-age students do not have a choice in the COVID-19 vaccine debate at this time, as it is not yet approved for those under age 12. That means it is important for parents to make sure their children are still following CDC guidelines while in the classroom.

Pediatrician Sunaina Suhag, MD, of the Austin Regional Clinic, emphasizes the importance of masking in schools still, despite how much children may not want to do it. Her recommendation for parents is to lead by example. “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.

As the data evolves, schools will continue to set up new guidelines for vaccine requirements, and once the vaccine is approved for children, parents can expect the schools to adjust accordingly. However, each state and each school district is different and will put different guidelines or requirements in place.

What This Means for You

It is still unclear if all schools will require the COVID-19 vaccine, especially since it is not yet approved by the FDA for children ages 5 to 11. For safety, the best course of action for parents of children under the age of 12 is to ensure kids are wearing masks in school, keeping properly distanced from others, and exercising good hygiene. Though the vaccine is not required in most schools yet, it could be eventually, and your healthcare provider can help you understand a proper plan of action when that time comes.

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3 Sources
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  1. Los Angeles Unified School District. About the Los Angeles Unified School District.

  2. NYC Department of Education. COVID-19 vaccination mandate. Updated September 15, 2021.

  3. NYC Department of Education. Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL).