Children between the ages of 5 and 11 are now eligible for the first time to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
An advisory panel to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Nov. 2 recommended the vaccine developed by drugmaker Pfizer and German biotechnology company BioNTech for emergency use authorization. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky then signed off on it—the final step in the government’s process of analyzing the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and ultimately approving it for emergency use.
What does this mean for schools? Maybe not a lot, at least for now.
While undoubtedly this is a huge moment for families who have been awaiting a vaccine for their younger children, it might not drastically change the situation in schools in the near term.
To begin with, many parents of children ages 5 to 11—majorities, even, in some polls—remain either hesitant about getting their children vaccinated or downright opposed.
Still, schools will play a vital role in this next phase of COVID prevention. Here’s what will change for schools and what won’t:
With all K-12 students now eligible for vaccines, schools have reason for optimism
Regardless of whether parents opt for the shots, all K-12 schoolchildren are now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, which, in and of itself, is an important step forward for schools struggling to offer safe and consistent in-person schooling.
The CDC estimates that in this school year to date, nearly 2,000 schools have closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks, affecting more than 1 million children.
So far, the CDC has recorded 1.9 million COVID-19 cases in children between 5- and 11-years- old and 8,300 hospitalizations. Children with underlying health conditions—such as obesity—are more likely to get severely ill.
The CDC estimates that by making vaccines available to 5- to 11-year-olds, based on uptake in other age groups, will mean there will be 600,000 fewer cases between now and March.
Tens of millions of doses are at the ready to be distributed, and schools will play a role
The White House has a plan to quickly distribute vaccines to the 28 million 5- to 11-year-olds who are now eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The plan highlights ways schools can contribute to the effort by vaccinating children on campus in partnership with local health providers as well as combating vaccine misinformation.
In a survey of local jurisdictions on their vaccination distribution plans presented by the CDC on Nov. 2, 72 percent reported planning to use school co-located vaccination clinics to provide vaccines to children under 12.
In a separate survey of parents by the CDC, RAND, and the University of Iowa, a quarter said they are comfortable having their child vaccinated at school so long as they could be present. Fifteen percent of parents said they trusted their child to be vaccinated at school without them.
Schools can play an important role in addressing vaccine hesitancy
Many parents don’t appear ready to rush out and get their children vaccinated.
October polls from Gallup, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Morning Consult found that 55 percent, 27 percent, and 45 percent of parents, respectively, said they planned to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible.
The Kaiser Family Foundation found that 33 percent of parents plan to take a wait-and-see approach, while Gallup found that 19 percent of parents are not sure if they want to get their child vaccinated.
School and district leaders can have a significant influence on those undecided parents, say public health experts, by connecting families with experts who can answer questions, incentivizing vaccine uptake through prizes, and by sharing their personal experiences with getting the vaccine, which helps normalize it.
Emergency approval does not automatically mean school vaccine mandates
Some districts, as well as the state of California, have moved to require students to get the COVID-19 vaccine in order to attend in-person classes. Currently, the vaccine is available to children ages 12 to 15 through emergency use authorization and available to teens 16 and older with full FDA approval.
However, one issue that arose during the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory panel’s debate over recommending the vaccine was whether schools would prematurely mandate the vaccine for schoolchildren. While some members of the advisory committee were concerned that there was not enough safety data, yet, to mandate the vaccine among younger 5- to 11-year-olds, no member voted against recommending emergency use authorization. Ultimately, no one wanted to limit access to the vaccine to children with underlying health conditions or families who have medically vulnerable members in their households.
Public health experts say that while vaccine requirements are an effective way to get more children vaccinated, mandates are not a short cut. Even with mandates, school officials should still be involved in communicating with and educating families about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Vaccine availability could mean no more mask requirements, eventually
Currently, the CDC guidance recommends that all students and adults in a school building wear a mask regardless of their vaccination status because of the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus. The guidelines were last updated in October, prior to the Pfizer vaccine’s emergency approval.
And if large shares of students remain unvaccinated, then it’s hard to see how the COVID-19 mitigation calculus will change much for schools at least in the near term.
However, several doctors on both the FDA’s and the CDC’s advisory panels tasked with weighing the benefits and risks of the vaccine for children, pointed to the need for schools to get back to normal—and free from the strains of continuous mitigation strategies such as masking, social distancing, and quarantining—as a major benefit of granting emergency approval to the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5-11.
Looking for more information on COVID-19 vaccinations and kids? Browse this curated list of news, advice, and more, broken down by topic. For the latest, view Education Week’s ongoing vaccine coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as All K-12 Students Can Now Get The COVID-19 Vaccine. Here’s What It Means for Schools