Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the age for which the Pfizer vaccine had been approved for emergency use by the FDA. The vaccine was approved for people age 16 and older.
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.
Three 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, the second was developed by U.S. biotechnology company Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the third by U.S. drugmaker Johnson & Johnson. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were 95 and 94 percent effective, respectively, in preventing COVID-19 in clinical trials. However, both of those vaccines require two doses and very cold storage temperatures, complicating vaccine distribution.
In trials, the vaccine was 72 percent effective in the U.S. and 57 percent effective in South Africa, where a more transmissible variant is fueling the spread of the coronavirus. The vaccine was 85 percent effective at preventing the most serious COVID-19 symptoms.
Here, Education Week answers some frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 vaccine and K-12 schools.
Will the COVID-19 vaccine be mandatory for teachers?
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.
Are teachers getting the COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S.?
As of April 5, all K-12 teachers in the United States were eligible to receive the vaccine.
On March 8, teachers became eligible nationwide to receive the vaccine under the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. However, some states continued to provide vaccinations at their state-run sites based on their own rollout plans, under which some teachers were not yet eligible until April.
When will kids get the COVID-19 vaccine?
It will still be a while for many younger children. However, the latest trial results released by Pfizer show that its vaccine is safe and strongly effective for 12- to 15-year olds, and the company hopes to begin vaccinating adolescents in this age range before the start of the next school year. The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for emergency use for people 16 years of age and older, and the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines for people 18 years and older. Both Moderna and Pfizer announced in March that their companies have begun testing their vaccines in children as young as 6 months.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and public health experts EdWeek has spoken with do not anticipate a vaccine for elementary children to arrive this calendar year.
Why can’t children use the current vaccines?
Children’s immune systems operate differently from those of adults—and even vary greatly from other children depending on age—so just using smaller dosages isn’t enough to account for those differences.
Will schools require COVID-19 vaccinations for students?
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.
To date, at least one major school system, the Los Angeles Unified School District, has said it will require students to get immunized against COVID-19. Superintendent Austin Beutner said in a recorded briefing that students will have to get the vaccine once it is available to attend school in person.
Are people getting the COVID-19 vaccine?
Seventy-one percent of adults said they plan to get vaccinated, including 16 percent who had already received the vaccine, in a Gallup poll conducted in mid-February. An AP-NORC poll from February found that 67 percent of adults said they will get a coronavirus vaccine, while the Kaiser Family Foundation survey from February found that 55 percent of U.S. adults say they have received at least one dose of the vaccine or they will get it as soon as they can.
Will schools have to continue with mitigation strategies even with a vaccine?
Because it will still be a while before students can get vaccinated, and because more transmissible strains of the coronavirus are spreading, 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 get 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 fully know to what degree, vaccinated people can spread the virus. However, emerging evidence shows that at least the Pfizer vaccine may be highly effective at stopping transmission of the disease.
Do vaccines work against new COVID-19 variants?
The vaccines currently available in the U.S. appear so far to be generally effective against the main variants of the coronavirus that are “of concern.” A variant of concern means that strain of the coronavirus is significantly more contagious, creates worse illness, or reduces the effectiveness of vaccines or treatments (more on variants of concern from the CDC here).
While some variants have shown resistance to some vaccines, studies have found that vaccines appear to provide more protection against the current coronavirus strains than antibodies developed from getting COVID-19.
However, both the new strains and the vaccines themselves are too new for significant research to be completed, and our understanding of the variants and how protective the current vaccines are against them is rapidly evolving.