Schools could play a key role in messaging if—as federal officials hope—the COVID-19 vaccine and its boosters become as routine as the annual flu shot.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized new Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 booster shots on Wednesday aimed at the most common strains of the virus, and officials expect the boosters to be available to Americans in the coming days. The Pfizer booster is available to everyone 12 and older, while the Moderna shot is reserved for people 18 and older. Pfizer plans to submit its booster for authorization for children ages 5 to 11 in early October, according to a news release from the company.
As the United States moves into a new era of the pandemic, White House officials said that they expect COVID-19 vaccines to be an annual shot like the influenza vaccine, The Associated Press says.
The latest development comes as most young children have not received full doses and boosters for the COVID vaccine. Sixty percent of children ages 12 to 17 and 30 percent of children ages 5 to 11 were fully vaccinated as of Aug. 31, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And only 10.4 percent of children younger than 5 had received their initial dose of the vaccine.
School health experts worry the low vaccination rates among children in general may lead to more absences this school year, especially as the CDC eases its guidance on COVID quarantine, social distancing, and testing protocols that helped schools navigate the past pandemic school years. And vaccination rates for childhood diseases other than COVID-19—such as measles, mumps, chicken pox, polio, tetanus, and whooping cough—also declined from 2019-20 to 2020-21, according to CDC school immunization data.
“Knowing that many of our students are behind on their routine immunizations, … it’s even more important for students to be fully vaccinated to remain in school, not miss school, and to be healthy,” said Deborah D’Souza Vazirani, the Champions for School Health project manager at the National Association of School Nurses.
COVID-19 vaccines are not required for students and staff aside from the District of Columbia schools, but school districts can take an active role in improving vaccination rates among their students, D’Souza Vazirani said. Here are three best practices for school districts looking to improve messaging around the vaccines.
1. Rely on school nurses as a trusted messenger
School nurses are the best source for trusted information on vaccines, COVID precautions, and overall health best practices in a school community, D’Souza Vazirani said.
School nurses can provide relevant insight on public-health concerns and how they may impact the school community, and they also are a great messaging tool in reaching students and their families on vaccines.
“School nurses are trusted messengers,” D’Souza Vazirani said. “They are the bridge between health and education in their schools and school communities.”
D’Souza Vazirani suggested that school districts create time for nurses to meet one-on-one with families who are hesitant about vaccines or have health concerns in general. For families who aren’t well connected to primary-care doctors in the community, the school nurse can often be a helpful guide when it comes to health concerns, she said.
School nurses can also help inform other school staff members about public-health concerns and answer questions so they’re best equipped to help families and students.
2. Make vaccines easily accessible
School-based vaccine clinics became a common occurrence throughout the COVID pandemic, and they don’t have to stop anytime soon.
In its messaging surrounding federal COVID-19-relief funds, the White House has urged school districts to use the money to host vaccine clinics, allowing families to get their COVID-19 booster shots as well as any required or optional seasonal vaccines.
The clinics are especially beneficial for families who don’t have the flexibility to get their children vaccinated on their own time, D’Souza Vazirani said. She suggested that schools combine COVID-vaccine clinics with other required and optional shots, like the MMR vaccine to protect against measles, mumps, and rubella, and for the flu shot.
“You can provide access and availability of these routine immunizations in school, on school premises, where the parent doesn’t have to take the day off,” she said.
3. Keep it simple and avoid fear
Schools that hope to spread messaging around the COVID-19 vaccine should avoid getting into the weeds on the complicated science behind the vaccines, D’Souza Vazirani said. Instead, it’s important for school districts to develop simple messaging.
“The science can be daunting for so many caregivers, so many families,” D’Souza Vazirani said. “School nurses and trusted messengers know how to take that messaging and make it simple so it’s understandable for families and caregivers.”
It’s also important for district and school leaders to understand that messages based on fear aren’t motivating for many people, D’Souza Vazirani said. Instead of focusing on the frightening impacts of COVID-19, measles, mumps, polio, or any other diseases, school leaders should promote the benefits of vaccinations, she said.
For example, school nurses can discuss how vaccines allow students to remain in school and the overarching community-health benefits, she said.
“Utilize the school nurse,” D’Souza Vazirani said. “That is what they’re there for.”