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 | Corrected: February 02, 2021 7 min read
Vaccine in a bottle with a syringe.

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.

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. However, both of those vaccines require two doses and very cold storage temperatures, complicating vaccine distribution.

Drug maker Johnson & Johnson announced at the end of January that it has developed a single-dose vaccine that is easier to store because it can be kept refrigerated instead of frozen. Trial results show that 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.

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?

States make the final decision on what groups of people are prioritized for receiving COVID-19 vaccines, and teachers and other school staff members are on many state priority lists.

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 phase 1b of their rollout plans.

As of mid-February, Education Week has found that some or all teachers are eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine in at least 28 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

See a map of teacher eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine by state here.

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 for most children. The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for emergency use for people 16 years of age and older, and the Moderna vaccine for people 18 years and older. Pfizer and Moderna are now studying their vaccines in adolescents 12 and up. Pfizer anticipates starting a trial for children ages 5-11 in the first half of 2021.

Public health experts EdWeek has spoken with do not anticipate a vaccine for children to come this school year.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has said that he thinks it is likely that vaccines will be authorized for students as young as 1st grade by September 2021. However, while other public health experts think it’s safe to assume middle and high school students could be eligible for the vaccine by the start of next school year, they believe having a vaccine ready for elementary-aged children by September is optimistic.

Fauci said in a White House press briefing on Jan. 29 that hopefully some children may even be able to get the vaccine as soon as late spring. However, people under 18 are generally last on states’ priority lists for receiving vaccines (unless they have other medical conditions) because they tend to have less severe COVID-19 symptoms than older people.

For more on the status of COVID-19 vaccines for children and adolescents, see this story.

Why can’t children use the current vaccines?

The current vaccines do not use a live virus, but genetic material that triggers an immune response. Children’s immune systems operate differently from those of adults; just using smaller dosages isn’t enough to account for those differences.

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.

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.

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, 65 percent of adults said they would be willing to receive an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine in a Gallup poll released in January. That number has risen from 50 percent in September and 58 percent in October. However, an AP-NORC poll 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.

For additional information on whether unvaccinated children make school outbreaks more likely, see this story.

Will the vaccines that are currently being distributed protect against the new, more transmissible strains of COVID-19?

It’s not clear at this point how effective vaccines and other treatments will be against the new strains of COVID-19 originating in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Japan.

Both the new strains and the vaccines themselves are too new for significant research to be completed. However, one not-yet-peer-reviewed study found the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine showed effects against the U.K. and South African mutations.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control predicts that the variant first discovered in the UK may be the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.

More on the new COVID-19 strains and how they may impact schools here.

How will vaccine distribution change under the Biden administration?

As part of his “American Rescue Plan” coronavirus relief package, President Joe Biden wants $20 billion for a national vaccine campaign that would include community vaccination centers and mobile units to deliver inoculations in “hard-to-reach” areas.

Biden wants states to be more flexible in vaccinating people in latter priority groups behind health-care workers and long-term care facility workers, so vaccines don’t go unused. If states comply, that could mean some teachers get access to vaccines sooner.

Most states have identified teachers among their vaccine priority groups, often placing them in line behind health-care personnel, nursing home residents, and other older adults. But logistical concerns and a slower-than-expected roll-out of the first doses mean some educators and school employees have waited longer than they expected to get their first shots.

Another plan announced by the Biden administration aims to create a more centralized strategy to combat COVID-19 and reopen schools, including better federal data gathering and dissemination about vaccine distribution.

Biden’s plans also urge states to release most vaccine doses right away, instead of holding back a large reserve of second doses.

More on Biden’s plan for distributing vaccines, testing, and COVID-19 school relief funding here.

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