While there has been tremendous focus on vaccinations for schoolchildren against COVID-19, there is another vaccine-related issue lurking, and one that could cause massive headaches for schools—or worse.
Many families skipped their children’s routine immunizations in the spring of 2020, and those numbers have not returned to their pre-pandemic levels, according to a study of nine states and New York City by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reason, the CDC said, is in part because schools did not enforce vaccine requirements last year as students were learning remotely.
Now, public health experts are urging schools to not waste any time in prodding families to get their children caught up on their regular immunizations before the start of the next school year.
“We and others are very concerned that a large number of kids have missed their routine vaccinations, to the point that we’re going to see outbreaks this fall [of] measles, mumps, and rubella,” said Richard Long, the executive director of the Learning First Alliance, a group of K-12 organizations including the national associations for school principals and superintendents, the country’s two largest teachers’ unions, and the National PTA.
In its report, the CDC warned that if students return under-vaccinated to schools this fall, it could lead to outbreaks and cause a “serious public health threat.”
That’s the more extreme scenario.
Another possibility is that, as more students return to in-person learning and schools step up vaccine enforcement, large numbers of students won’t be able to start school on time because they haven’t received their required immunizations.
Schools need to get the word out
To avoid that situation, schools need to make it a priority now, if they haven’t already, to give parents frequent reminders to get their children immunized, said Long. Put notices in newsletters, on school websites, and in students’ backpacks at summer school.
“What they should absolutely do, just remind parents and students that this is something they have to do,” he said. “What they shouldn’t do is say that the sky is falling. Fear mongering is clearly the wrong way to go. This is a solvable problem, we can solve it. It’s a matter of getting information to people and reminding them.”
The Learning First Alliance has put together materials, including pamphlets to send out to families and a social media toolkit, for schools to use.
Schools, said Long, should also make families aware that, if they are worried about cost, there is a federally funded program that provides routine immunizations for free called the Vaccines for Children Program.
Schools or families can find a list of doctors, clinics, and hospitals that participate in the program by contacting their state’s Vaccines for Children coordinator.
Some families, though, might need more than fliers, said Kaweeda G. Adams, the superintendent of the City School District of Albany in New York. She oversaw a big push to get students who were learning remotely last year up to date on their vaccines.
Although her district typically has a high vaccination rate, the pandemic, combined with a change in the state law for what vaccines are required and when, led to a lot of confusion among families, especially those that had opted for remote learning, about what was required for enrolling their children in school.
“We worked really hard with our nurses and community partners to make sure we were still notifying parents and calling them weekly, and working with families to provide opportunities to get vaccinated,” Adams said. Her district partnered with the county health department and the local hospital system to provide clinics at schools for in-person and remote students.
Adams said the effort was successful last fall and that the district is deploying the same strategy and resources this summer to make sure students arrive at school fully vaccinated.
According to the CDC’s study, the percentage of children and adolescents receiving their MMR shots (for measles, mumps, and rubella) and their Tdap shots (tetanus, diptheria, and pertussis) between March and May 2020 dropped substantially compared to the same time period in 2018 and 2019. For example, MMR doses among 2- to 8-year-olds dropped by 63 percent. Tdap vaccinations among 9- to 12-year-olds declined by 66 percent and by 21 percent among 13- to 17-year-olds.
During the time period between June and September 2020, vaccination numbers had nearly recovered to pre-pandemic levels, but, as the CDC report points out, those numbers needed to exceed 2018 and 2019 levels to make up for all the vaccinations missed in the spring.
Policies requiring vaccines for school entry play a vital role in public health, said Dr. Rani Gereige, a pediatrician at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami who also researches schools’ roles in children’s health.
“Really linking immunization to school entry has resulted in helping us fight many preventable diseases,” he said. “It’s been very successful.”
Gereige believes that vaccination rates among children will recover to pre-pandemic levels if students return to in-person learning and schools enforce vaccine requirements.