Mandate COVID-19 Vaccinations for Students & Staff To Re-Open Schools

Image Credit: Yahoo! News

Across the United States, state laws require immunizations for polio, chickenpox, Hepatitis B, measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), and diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) for children to attend preschool, grade school, and daycare. Herd immunity, which requires a high percentage of the population to be immune to an infectious disease (either through vaccination or prior infection), makes the spread of disease from person to person unlikely and indirectly protects those who are not immune to the condition. Through different levels of population immunity, both polio and smallpox were eradicated in the United States.

Herd immunity against COVID-19 can be achieved through vaccinations or through a large portion of the population becoming infected, developing antibodies, and thus, gaining natural immunity, but the second method would likely mean hundreds of thousands of deaths. The percentage of the population that must be vaccinated against COVID-19 for herd immunity is unknown, but it is likely in the realm of 50–90% like most infectious diseases. Thus, it is vital to vaccinate a large proportion of the population to protect both the vaccinated and unvaccinated members of the community against COVID-19.

National COVID-19 cases are on the rise with people continuing to disregard safety measures, such as wearing face masks and social distancing, and governments rushing to prematurely re-open businesses and schools to try and stimulate the economy. However, in order to re-open these institutions with a reasonable degree of safety, the United States must first achieve some degree of herd immunity.

Whether in a hybrid learning or fully in-person format, educational institutions, from elementary schools through universities, across the nation are responsible for hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 cases. For schools to open safely and stop costing thousands of student lives, a high proportion of their staff and students need to be immunized. There may be some outliers, such as families whose religious beliefs prevent them from being vaccinated, but they, too, will be protected from COVID-19 if enough of the community is immunized. Critically, if not enough of a school’s student body or staff is vaccinated, it puts the local community, with whom the members of the school interact and come in contact, in danger. Thus, schools should mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for students and faculty and maintain safety protocols like face masks and social distancing to safely re-open campuses. With such a high rate of hospitalizations and deaths at the hands of COVID-19 in the United States and a clear failure of hybrid and in-person schooling to mitigate the spread of disease, it is vital to vaccinate a high percentage, if not all, of the students and staff at schools to achieve herd immunity, stop the spread of COVID-19, protect members of our communities, and begin to open local businesses and community facilities.

Although the plan to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all school staff and students is the most effective, safe, and sustainable in theory, it will be difficult to implement quickly. In the CDC and ACIP’s current phased approach to COVID-19 vaccine allocation, K-12 teachers and other school faculty will be vaccinated in phase 2 when there are a larger amount of vaccine doses. Only in the final phases (phases 3 and 4) will children and young adults receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Thus, it could take months or years for all school staff and students to gain access to COVID-19 vaccines. Although waiting to reopen schools until the school’s community is vaccinated is the safest option, there is a myriad of drawbacks to remaining in a virtual learning format. Students’ mental health suffers from social distancing and isolation from friends and peers. Teachers also cannot spend as much one-on-one time working with students to clarify questions and ensure they understand concepts. Further, physical activity is limited with the cancellation of physical education classes and after-school sports. Screen time also drastically increases with classes being held on video-conferencing platforms and assignments being assigned on online portals. Further, some students may not have consistent access to an at-home computer or stable wifi connection, hindering their learning. However, schools and community organizations are leading efforts to provide virtual mental health support and technological accommodations for students.

Another obstacle is the lack of research into how the COVID-19 vaccine affects children and teens. The majority of studies until now have only involved adults. However, Pfizer and Moderna are beginning clinical trials to vaccinate children aged 12–15 and 17+, so these efforts may provide the missing insights into how the COVID-19 vaccine works on younger age demographics.

Though isolation has negative mental, emotional and social impacts on students, it is a necessary trade-off. It is unsafe to fully return to in-person school until the majority of the student body and staff are vaccinated, creating protective herd immunity. In the meantime, accommodations can be made to better support student mental health and learning in a remote setting.



Student at the University of Michigan | Interested in health equity & social justice

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Natasha Matta

Student at the University of Michigan | Interested in health equity & social justice