COVID-19 vaccine uptake among 5- to 11-year-olds has slowed substantially over the past few months, putting schools in a difficult spot as they struggle to remain open amid the spread of the Omicron variant.
Overall, only about 1 in 5 children in this age group that spans kindergarten to early middle school are two weeks past receiving their second shot of the vaccine—the point at which they are considered fully inoculated against COVID-19. That’s according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation of data collected by the U.S. Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention.
The number of children getting vaccinated spiked in the first two weeks after Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine received emergency authorization from federal regulators for use in children ages 5 to11. Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine has received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for people 16 and older.
In mid-November, 265,000 children ages 5 to 12 were getting their first doses of the vaccine based on the 7-day rolling average. Vaccination rates slowed substantially by early December. And by January 18, the date to which the analysis runs, the 7-day rolling average number had settled far below those November highs, at around 50,000.
Nationally, 28 percent of 5- to 11-year-olds have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. But there are sizable variations among states in the number of children in that age group who have been vaccinated. Several states in New England lead the pack while states with the lowest shares of vaccinated 5- to 11-year-olds are clustered in the South. This tracks with regional adult vaccination patterns as well.
Vermont currently has the largest share of fully vaccinated children in this age group, at 52 percent; while Alabama has the smallest, at 5.3 percent.
In a November poll, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 29 percent of parents with kids ages 5 to11 will definitely not get a COVID-19 vaccine, and 7 percent said they would only do it if required.
Polling has shown that parents are more reluctant to get younger children vaccinated against COVID-19, compared with older children or themselves.
Among 12- to 17-year-olds, 54 percent are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a separate analysis of CDC data by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Between January 12 and 19, about 331,000 received their first dose of the vaccine, which was the highest uptake for a week since early September.
How to talk with families about COVID-19 vaccination
There can be several factors driving parents’ reluctance in getting their children vaccinated, such as fear, misinformation, and apathy on top of logistical hurdles such as a lack of time or transportation.
Schools can play a key role in getting children vaccinated, say public health experts, from helping parents overcome their concerns about vaccines to offering vaccines on school campuses. Although this is not a new role for schools—they have long been sources of public health information for families—politics and misinformation have certainly complicated such efforts during the pandemic.
COVID-19 vaccines are crucial to keeping students—and staff—in school, public health experts emphasize. But they are also concerned that if parental misgivings about COVID-19 vaccines are not addressed, such beliefs might spread to vaccines for other diseases.
So, what can educators do to improve COVID-19 vaccine uptake among their students? Education Week spoke with several experts on public health and vaccine hesitancy (the public health term for the delay in accepting vaccines or refusing them altogether) and compiled this list of best practices for school and district leaders about how to approach the topic with families.
What to Do:
- Provide information from trusted resources, such as a local health department or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.
- Connect families with local health experts to answer their questions about the vaccine.
- Normalize vaccination by sharing your personal experience getting it.
- Be sensitive to the communities your school serves and prepared to tailor messaging and approaches to their unique needs.
- Confront misinformation. It’s OK to say directly that vaccines don’t cause side effects like Autism or infertility but be careful not to be dismissive or condescending.
- Be patient. People who are hesitant often need time to come around to making a decision about vaccination.
What Not to Do:
- Badger or push parents too hard to get their children vaccinated. Doing so can actually increase parents’ resistance.
- Adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to education about the vaccine. Different approaches work for different people. Parents like to feel the health and safety of their individual child is being taken into account.
- Downplay the side effects and risks of vaccination. Being a trusted resource means squaring with families. Common side effects of the vaccine in adolescents include fever, soreness at the injection site, fatigue, and headache. In very rare cases, some young adults and adolescents, mostly males, have developed treatable heart inflammation after receiving one of the two mRNA vaccines developed by drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna.
- Assume that providing facts, data, and science is all hesitant families need. Getting vaccinated is as much an emotional decision as anything else.
- Expect that mandating the COVID-19 vaccine means you can skip these other steps. While vaccine mandates are effective ways to get more children vaccinated, public health experts say that school officials still have to be just as involved in communicating with and educating families about the vaccine.
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.