It’s complicated: Can schools require COVID vaccines?

One superintendent says vaccines will 'absolutely' be required as other states downplay potential mandates
By: | May 19, 2021
(Photo by CDC on Unsplash)

Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst says he ‘absolutely’ intends to require COVID vaccines for Needham Public Schools staff and students once the medicines are fully authorized beyond emergency status, WCVB5 reports.

“I want to be clear: There is no scientific or biologic plausibility for any reason that the vaccine should interfere with puberty or hormones or fertility,” Dr. Todd Ellerin, a local physician, told WCVB. “By the way, we haven’t seen that with COVID yet. There’s no evidence that COVID infection leads to infertility or problems with hormones.”

And Superintendent Rico Munn, of Aurora Public Schools in Colorado, told staff in a letter that they will be required to get vaccines once they are fully approved.

“This action is in accord with our belief that the science around COVID-19 and the vaccines is clear and compelling, is in alignment with the guidance received from federal, state, and local public health authorities and supports our goal of returning to full in-person working and learning as soon as possible—and to the fullest extent possible,” Munn wrote.

States vary on vaccines views

Dozens of colleges and universities have required that students get vaccinated before returning in the fall but the issue poses more complex questions for K-12. Health officials in the state of Idaho, for instance, say there are no plans to require COVID vaccinations in schools, KTVB reported.

Idaho mandates K-12 immunizations for measles, mumps and tetanus, among others, according to the station.

Health officials in Arizona are sticking by a similar decision. “We’re not discussing adding it as a required vaccine for school,” Director Dr. Cara Christ of the Arizona Department of Health Services told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Arizona’s Morning News.

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In Illinois, on the other hand, state leaders have mulled the possibility of a requirement even while the vaccines are still under emergency use.

In a Facebook live question-and-answer session Thursday, Arwady explained she read legal analysis on the topic, and said schools could likely mandate the vaccine, even while it’s under emergency use authorization, as the country remains in a public health emergency.

“It’s going to be a big conversation,” Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said during a Facebook live session covered by 5Chicago. “I think at schools, really across the country, having a fully approved vaccine, including for kids, is one of the first steps in that conversation.”

And officials in Washington told the Seattle Times that vaccines won’t be required before they are fully authorized.

Highline Public Schools Superintendent Susan Enfield told the Seattle Times that her district will not act independently on vaccines, and will follow whatever rules the state eventually sets on COVID immunizations.

Precedent in previous outbreaks

The multi-layered question of K-12 vaccine requirements is explored in-depth in an article for the journal, The Conversation, by Kristine Bowman, a professor of education policy and law at Michigan State University and a former school district attorney.

She points out that states, not the federal governments, establish vaccine requirements, and that the rules vary from state to state. All states allow certain exemptions, particularly for pre-existing medical conditions and religious objections.

Some precedent may be set by how states regulations around outbreaks of other infectious diseases.

“Of particular importance right now is that states also take different approaches to exemptions during an outbreak,” she writes. “Thirty-two states ban unvaccinated students from attending school during an outbreak. A handful of states do not allow vaccine exemptions during an outbreak.”