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Student Well-Being Explainer

COVID-19 Vaccines and Schools: Your Questions Answered

Will teachers get priority? Can shots be required?
By Education Week Staff — January 05, 2021 4 min read
Vaccine in a bottle with a syringe.

Getting educators and students vaccinated against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is a crucial step in the return-to-normal for schools. But a lot of hurdles—and questions—remain regarding how and when this will happen.

Two vaccines have been approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The first is produced by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and the German company BioNTech, and the second was developed by U.S. biotechnology company Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Clinical trials have shown these vaccines are, so far, 90 and 95 percent effective, respectively. Here, Education Week answers some frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 vaccine and K-12 schools.

Can teachers be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine?

States have the legal power to require people to get vaccinated, per a 1905 Supreme Court ruling, Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. If states don’t require teachers to get vaccinated, local school districts could make that decision.

The U.S. says that employers can require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine, with exemptions for workers with certain medical conditions or religious beliefs. However, because the coronavirus vaccines have so far only received emergency use authorization, individuals must have the option to accept or refuse it. That might complicate any sort of mandate until the vaccines receive full FDA authorization.

Will teachers get priority in receiving a COVID-19 vaccine?

Some states, such as Arizona, Kentucky, and Utah, are prioritizing educators in their vaccine rollout plans.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has recommended that states include teachers and school support staff as “frontline essential workers,” along with firefighters, police officers, and grocery store employees, in the next phase of their rollout plans. Most states are giving first priority to health-care workers and nursing home residents.

In at least one rural community in Indiana, teachers have already started receiving the vaccine.

More on how states will decide when school employees will be able to get the vaccine here.

Has a COVID-19 vaccine been approved for children?

Not yet. The two COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved for emergency use by the FDA are for people 18 years of age and older. Pfizer and Moderna are now testing their vaccines in adolescents 12- to 17-years old.

Pfizer said in a press release that it has additional studies planned to determine the safety of its vaccine in children under 12.

Public health experts EdWeek has spoken with do not anticipate a vaccine for children to come this school year. It could be well into the 2021-22 school year before children can start getting vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a CNN town hall in partnership with Sesame Street, where he answered questions from children on the vaccine, that it’s typical to first approve a new vaccine in adults to make sure it is safe and works before moving on to testing it in children.

“The reason why you’re not hearing about vaccinating children right now is because we want to wait a month or two,” said Fauci. “We’re looking at January, we want to start some trials in children. We’ll start with those who are a bit older and then work our way down, so that hopefully in a few months we will be able to tell children, what I know we will be able to say, the vaccine is safe and effective in you and we’re anxious to get you vaccinated.”

Can children be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine to attend school?

While states can mandate vaccines for children, and often require them for children to attend school, that doesn’t mean states will or should—at least not in the beginning, say experts.

One reason state leaders may not mandate a vaccine as soon as it’s available for children and adolescents is that there will likely remain some unanswered questions about the safety of the vaccine even after clinical trials, which is true of any new vaccine. The other reason is that requiring a vaccine for children that many parents are still unsure of can lead to significant pushback and ultimately undermine vaccination efforts.

Read more about requiring a COVID-19 vaccine for schoolchildren here.

Will people choose to get the vaccine once it is available to them?

A nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey found that 44 percent of educators said that they were very likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine once it’s available. Another 27 percent said they were somewhat likely. (A total of 913 district leaders, principals, and teachers took the online survey on Nov. 18 and 19.)

Meanwhile, 63 percent of adults said they would be willing to receive an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine in a Gallup poll released in December. That number has been steadily rising from 50 percent in September and 58 percent in October. However, an AP-NORC poll also published in December found that only 47 percent of adults said they will get a coronavirus vaccine, while a December survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 71 percent of adults would definitely or probably get a COVID-19 vaccine that was free and determined safe by scientists.

Will schools have to continue with mitigation strategies even with a vaccine?

Because it will still be a while before students can get vaccinated, public health experts have told EdWeek that schools will likely have to continue with some mitigation efforts, such as social distancing and wearing masks, even as school staff start getting inoculated. The degree of mitigation efforts will likely depend on how much uptake there is of the vaccine among the general population.

Scientists still do not yet know if, or to what degree, vaccinated people can spread the virus.

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