Schools Unsure About Mandates as COVID-19 Vaccine Approval Continues

Drawing of a happy COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccines for children and boosters for adults have recently been approved in the United States. Illustration by Isabella Smejtek.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was recently approved for 5-11-year-olds on Oct. 29, 2021, and booster vaccines from all three major American companies have been approved for all people ages 18 and up. Portland Public Schools is also currently considering whether or not to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations within all schools, but the decision on this issue has been pushed out by six months. 

The Pfizer-BioNTech is the only vaccine that has been approved by the FDA for 5-11 year olds (Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccines have all been approved by the FDA in the U.S. for all other age groups). According to the CDC, the Pfizer mRNA vaccine for children has identical ingredients to that for adults, while using a much smaller dosage of 10 micrograms. Although the dosage is much smaller, it has been found to lead to a strong antibody response, as high as those found in 16-25 year olds. As people have begun to reach their six months after having initially achieved full vaccination status, all three companies that have had vaccines approved in the U.S. now have approved booster vaccines available. 

With students having returned to in-person learning and more children becoming eligible for vaccines, questions are being raised regarding whether or not parents should have their children vaccinated. There are also questions of whether there will be a vaccine mandate within Portland Public Schools, and when boosters will be available for children and teenagers. The school board noted that many parents have raised concerns about the side effects in the 5-11 year old age range caused by the vaccine; however, during clinical trials it was found that side effects after the second dosage of the vaccine were much lower in children than in adults.

The COVID-19 vaccine is no longer a new method for protection against the virus in the United States, as it initially became available for adults in January of 2021. In May of 2021, the vaccine became available for children ages 12-15 as well, allowing vaccination rates to continue to increase. The COVID-19 vaccine can be received in conjunction with the flu and any other vaccines, with minimal risk of side effects. It is important for maximum efficacy that people receive the appropriate vaccinations for their age group. One can mitigate viral spread through vaccinations, along with continuing to take all the necessary precautions such as wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing as much as possible. 

According to The Washington Post, as of November 17, more than 2.6 million children ages 5-11 have received at least their first dosage of the COVID-19 vaccine. There is currently a limited supply of vaccines, but in the U.S., many more are available for 5-11 year olds than were initially available for adults.  The school board stressed in their most recent vaccination forum the importance of parents having their children vaccinated. The vaccine is the proven best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In an effort to aid families in getting vaccinated, PPS has begun to host vaccination clinics at eight schools for students ages 5-11, including Oliver P. Lent School in SE Portland. In order for students ages 5-11 to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, students must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. The PPS school board also noted during the vaccination forum on Nov. 17 that these vaccine clinics will be integrating school required vaccines for communities who have been excluded from vaccinations so far in order to help families who have not had access to vaccines previously have an opportunity to catch up.

In August of 2021, the COVID-19 booster vaccine was approved by the FDA and was only available for emergency uses for people over the age of 50, ages 18 and older depending on health circumstances, people of high health risk, and frontline workers. Recently as of November 19, the FDA has now expanded authorization for all people ages 18 and older to receive the COVID-19 vaccine booster. The Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine boosters have all been approved. As reported by Pfizer, clinical trials of the booster vaccine in ages 16 and up have closed and found a 95% efficacy for protecting against the SARS-CoV-2  virus, but authorization of the booster dosage for ages 16-18 is still pending. The CDC recommends that all people receive the booster vaccine as soon as possible once they are eligible as it is the proven best way to prevent the continuing spread of the virus and infection. 

During this same PPS forum, “Our goal, if you think of the swiss cheese model, is to layer as many slices of swiss cheese between our child and the virus, so the virus isn’t able to draw a straight line through those holes, and are blocked eventually by a layer of cheese,” says Dominique Chan, Director of Pharmacy at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, Randall Children’s Hospital and Unity Center for Behavioral Health, among other things. “So that’s really the skinny of it is that nothing is 100%, so we’re going to throw as many 90% plus blockades in front of the virus […] and the vaccine is one of them.”

Multnomah County’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program is working on outreach opportunities to increase access to the COVID-19 vaccine. The REACH organization focuses on uplifting and preserving Black culture and health, increasing access to nutritious foods, and improving environments to create safe places for physical activity. Throughout the pandemic, REACH staff have provided COVID-19 testing and vaccine services to the community at no cost. Oregon Health and Science University has also been hosting eight mass vaccination locations and community based vaccine clinics, along with partnering with REACH to open public health clinics specifically to support the Black, Indigenous, People Of Color (BIPOC) community in receiving the COVID vaccine. There is currently a vaccine clinic located in the Lloyd Center, open Tuesdays and Thursdays.  

With the increased accessibility to the COVID-19 vaccine, there has been discussion within the school board and district on whether or not PPS will be mandating vaccines for in person school attendance. According to the Oregonian, the school board was scheduled to have a meeting to vote on mandating vaccines for students within PPS schools on Nov. 17, but the district decided at the last minute to push this decision out by six months to see how the pandemic progresses. It did not feel right to the school board to punish kids for not being vaccinated, as the district believes that would also infringe on students’ rights to equal education opportunity. 

There are two sides to this; when mandating vaccines for children, the district needs to have clear directions from public health officials that a mandate is necessary for the health and safety of the community, which they do not currently have. Yet by pushing out the decision of the vaccine mandate, some students will remain unvaccinated, leaving higher chances for students to contract COVID-19, leading to increased risk of school closures. The school board also stressed during the vaccine information forum held on November 17 that they are “moving at the speed of trust” with the community. They want to make sure that they are listening to the community and are creating space for community dialogue and compassion when making decisions which impact schools such as that of mandating the vaccine. David Douglas superintendent Ken Richardson said during the PPS vaccination forum that “We are all working very hard to keep our schools open, [and] we know one of the best ways to do this is through vaccinations.” 

Resources

COVID-19 FAQs:

https://www.ohsu.edu/health/frequently-asked-questions-covid-19-and-vaccines

More information on the COVID-19 vaccine:

https://www.ohsu.edu/health/unsure-about-covid-vaccines-information-consider-and-how-learn-more

OHSU more information on the COVID-19 vaccine:

General vaccine information and appointments:

https://www.ohsu.edu/health/covid-19-vaccines-information-and-appointments

COVID-19 testing Expo Center:

https://www.ohsu.edu/health/covid-testing-portland-expo-center

COVID-19 vaccine: Events for Black/African American, Asian, Latinx, Pacific Islander, Native American and other community members:

https://www.ohsu.edu/health/vaccine-scheduling-ycuo

  • English line: (833) 647-8222
  • Spanish line: (503) 437-9074
  • Russian line: (503) 386-0673

Vaccine information and appointments in Spanish

https://www.ohsu.edu/espa%C3%B1ol/vacunas-contra-el-covid-19-informacion-y-citas

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