Parents deeply divided on K-12 students getting vaccines

With half either undecided or opting against vaccination for their children, what does that mean for school reopenings?

A new report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 34% of children ages 12-17 have received the first dose of COVID-19 preventive vaccines, a 10% rise from May data. Another 8% of parents say they will get their kids doses as soon as possible.

However, that leaves a sizeable gap between the vaccine haves and have-nots and a lot of questions for states and K-12 school districts as they make plans for the fall.

The study, done of nearly 1,900 adults from June 8-21 as part of the foundation’s ongoing COVID Vaccine Monitor research project, notes that: 25% of parents surveyed will not have their children vaccinated; 18% are delaying decisions over safety and efficacy, and 10% will only allow children to get them if schools require it. Those numbers have not changed in more than a month.

That 50%-plus total also doesn’t include the large population of 12-and-under students who simply are not yet eligible. For states and districts promising a return to largely protocol-free operations this fall – particularly elementary schools—a lack of vaccinations combined with the rise of the Delta variant could make for a dicey start to the school year.

Seeing those data and their own state trends, some districts already have opted to keep the masks on while others are poised to adjust their protocols as they did last fall if conditions change.

Those pivots, especially bringing in masks for students remaining in person, were keys to mitigating COVID-19 spread last year in North Carolina, according to a new report released by Duke University researchers. They say getting that 12-17 population COVID-19 doses will be a key this year, too.

“We know that if our goal is to reduce transmission of COVID-19 in schools, there are two effective ways to do that. 1: Vaccination. 2: Masking,” said Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman, associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Critical Care Medicine at Duke University Medical Center. “In the setting of schools … the science suggests masking can be extremely effective, particularly for those who can’t get vaccinated while COVID-19 is still circulating.”

Inside the numbers

The K-12 piece from the Kaiser Foundation is part of a larger study on all Americans and their desires to get vaccines or have their children get them. There have been clear splits in the poll along political lines, with Democrats far more likely to embrace vaccines than Republicans, while Independents are largely divided 50-50 on them. For example, nearly twice as many Democrat households are fully vaccinated (67%) than Republican homes (39%). And while only 10% of Democrats in the survey say their households are completely unvaccinated, for Republicans it is 37%.

Those divides also show up in some of the K-12 numbers, particularly around mandates.

When parents were asked whether their schools should require vaccines (outside of medical exemptions), 61% said no and only 37% said yes. But digging deeper into the data, there is a sizable disparity between Democrats (58% are in favor) and Republicans (20% in favor). Somewhat surprising was that a majority overall (58%) believe college and universities should mandate vaccines.

As for those who have children 12-and-under, parents were split right down the middle on getting them vaccinated when they are given authorization: 48% of those who are vaccinated will; 48% of those who are unvaccinated won’t.

One of the concerns for both sides about vaccine mandates is that they currently still fall under the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization status. Despite vaccine efficacy and safety and assurances from public health officials, some 40% of parents are worried about rare heart-related issues that have been reported. Of that group who expressed worry, 29% say they will not get their children vaccinated and 15% will do so only if there is a mandate.

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