High school juniors and seniors are starting to be vaccinated against COVID-19—a watershed moment in the pandemic for schools.
“It felt like the turning point,” said Jonathan Denny, a 17-year-old high school junior in New Orleans, who received his first vaccine dose last month. “We used to be so afraid, we were bleaching all of our groceries and never seeing anyone, but now it feels like, wow, maybe in a few months I can kind of have my old life back again.”
More than 30 states have already opened vaccine eligibility to those 16 and up, according to a New York Times tracker, and most others plan to do so in the coming days or weeks. (President Joe Biden is calling for all states to make everyone eligible for the vaccine by April 19.) Educators are now encouraging their oldest students to get the vaccine, with the hopes that it will help normalize school operations and reduce the number of coronavirus outbreaks. In many states, teenagers and young adults now seem to be driving COVID-19 surges.
The only vaccine currently authorized for use in the United States that’s approved for ages 16 and up is made by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German company BioNTech. The other authorized vaccines, made by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, are approved for ages 18 and up.
Pfizer and BioNTech announced last week that their vaccine is safe and strongly effective for 12- to 15-year-olds, too, and they hope to start vaccinating this age group before the start of next school year, pending regulatory approval. Moderna is expected to release its own trial results for adolescents ages 12 to 17 soon. Both vaccine-makers are also conducting trials with younger children, but public health experts say they don’t expect vaccines to become available for elementary-aged kids until early next year.
But even just having the oldest students vaccinated this spring will likely help schools’ efforts to resume five days a week of in-person learning. Evidence suggests that teenagers are more likely to spread the coronavirus than young children, and quarantine requirements mean that every time there’s a case, anyone who was exposed has to stay home for up to two weeks, disrupting school operations. As a result, high schools are most likely to stay remote-only or only be open a couple days a week.
But once people are vaccinated, they no longer have to quarantine if exposed to the virus, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has said.
Vaccinations will add “another protective layer” to schools’ mitigation efforts, said Dr. Sara Bode, a primary care pediatrician who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on School Health. “Even if it’s not everyone [in the school building who is vaccinated], it’s still incredibly helpful.”
Of course, the vaccine distribution across the United States has been uneven, and in some states, some older adults who are much more likely to get seriously ill or die from COVID-19 haven’t been able to get vaccinated. Teenagers are at much lower risk from serious COVID-19 symptoms. Still, they can spread the virus to others.
When Clark County in Ohio announced it would begin vaccinating everybody 16 and older, Beth Crawford, a high school English teacher there, felt a deep sense of relief. She told her students about the opportunity at the beginning of each class that day.
“I said I love them and didn’t want to see them get sick, and I was worried about them—and that’s where I left it,” Crawford said.
She didn’t want to push the vaccine too much. Some of her students have told her that their parents won’t let them get vaccinated. And others don’t think getting COVID-19 would be a big deal, given the low death and hospitalization rates among their age group.
Yet one of Crawford’s former students had such a severe case of COVID-19 that it damaged his heart and left him unable to continue playing basketball in college. Crawford didn’t want to scare her students by telling them this story, but she hopes they will protect themselves from what is an unpredictable virus.
“Knowing that they’re safe would be a huge load off my mind,” she said.
Educating families about the vaccine
Neither states nor districts can currently mandate that students get the COVID-19 vaccine, since it’s under emergency use authorization. Instead, school and district leaders are trying to educate their school families about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. And in some states where teenagers are eligible for the vaccine, district leaders are working with local and state health officials to host mass vaccination clinics at their school buildings, in hopes that easy access will increase uptake.
In Connecticut, for instance, the 33 school districts with the highest percentage of students living in poverty will be able to offer vaccine clinics for their students starting April 19. All other high schools will be able to host clinics in May, once other high-risk or vulnerable people in the state have had the chance to get the vaccine. (Vaccine eligibility opened up for everyone there on April 1.)
In West Virginia, which opened up eligibility to all residents 16 and older on March 22, Greenbrier County schools has been working with the local health department to facilitate vaccinations for the district’s 800 eligible students. The district has issued a survey to parents asking them if they would like their child to receive a vaccine, and if they want to receive one themselves, too. Local health officials will reach out to the families who are interested to schedule an appointment.
So far, Superintendent Jeff Bryant said, students have been excited to get their jabs, and parents are on board, too.
“There’s been some cautionary resistance, but I really do feel from our conversations with our parents that they are very excited about the opportunity that their children can receive this vaccine … and [we can start to] operate like what they feel is normal,” he said. “Our main focus [this past year] has been our concern for our students: Is their health going to be jeopardized? … It’s a relief not only for parents, but for us as well.”
He’s hopeful that as more teenagers get vaccinated, the number of students who are quarantined at any given point decreases. Most of the school’s outbreaks have been related to student athletics, which Bryant attributes to teams’ travel to other schools across the state, so school officials are especially hoping student-athletes get vaccinated.
Bryant said he thinks they will, to reduce the chances of quarantines interfering with post-season play: “They’re so dedicated to what they do,” he said. “The kids don’t want to miss out.”
High school students hope for a post-vaccine return to normalcy
Nearly three-fourths of high school students say they are experiencing more problems now than before the pandemic, according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey. About 40 percent of students say remote instruction has affected them somewhat or very negatively, and about half of students felt the same about the cancellation of a sport or extracurricular.
Jonathan, the New Orleans junior, is going to school in person just two days a week. While he likes that he can sleep in on remote learning days, he misses seeing his friends every day. He’s hopeful that as more students get vaccinated, school will become more normal.
“Virtual learning is definitely different, and it’s harder to have more-engaging classwork because there’s nothing really tangible you can do,” Jonathan said. “I find myself bored in class because the teacher can’t really do much except for lecture.”
His classmate, Jay Garcia, who just turned 17 and got his first dose of the vaccine last month, has opted to stay fully remote this school year because he didn’t want to take the risk of being exposed to COVID-19. Jay has loved remote learning: “I’ve always learned best on my own time,” he said. “It has given me an opportunity to do my school work and personal projects. Learning wise, virtual works.”
But he’s still looking forward to going back to school so he can see people in person. He got vaccinated despite having severe food allergies, which necessitated additional monitoring post-shot, because he wants to go back to normal.
“I’m tired of not being able to interact with my friends in the way I used to,” Jay said. “It’s sad not being able to hug your friends.”
Zoë Jenkins, a 17-year-old high school senior in Lexington, Ky., who will get her first vaccine dose this week, said she’s most excited to be able to see and hug her grandparents, who have already been vaccinated. But she’s not sure yet how much else will change once she’s inoculated.
“I think that I am very unsure about what a post-vaccine world looks like,” she said. “There’s conflicting information about what people can do once they’ve gotten a vaccine. You can’t exactly return to business as usual.”
Still, the protection will provide some relief. Zoë has been planning to have her own outdoor, socially distanced, masked prom with a small group of friends in lieu of going to her school-sanctioned prom, which will be held outdoors but will have a lot more people. Now that she and her friends will be vaccinated, she said there will be a lot less stress—although they still plan to follow safety measures.
Not all students—or parents—are on board
For Sophia Dulin, an 18-year-old high school senior in Baker, Mont., getting the vaccine hasn’t been a priority for her, even though the state opened up eligibility for everyone April 1. She’s been busy with wrestling, and her county has only had a couple isolated COVID-19 cases since the fall.
“It’s kind of like a bubble here,” she said. “We don’t have to wear masks at school, so no one really does.”
Sophia’s parents have gotten vaccinated though, and she’s not opposed to getting the shot. But that’s not the case for other teens: One recent study found that about a quarter of U.S. parents say they do not intend to vaccinate their kids against the coronavirus, and plans to not vaccinate are particularly common among white Republican mothers. Bode, the pediatrician, said school leaders can try to combat that hesitancy through messaging around the safety of the vaccine.
When Travis Heavin, the principal of Angola High School in northeast Indiana, learned that the state was making anyone age 16 and older eligible for vaccination, he sent out the news to families through the Remind messaging app, the school’s Twitter account, and the school website. Heavin also shared an informational flyer from the Indiana Department of Health that stressed the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines.
“Vaccines will make schools safer,” the flyer read. “It is true that kids often have milder, less serious cases of COVID-19, but they can be silent spreaders of the virus in the school setting. Unvaccinated students run the risk of unknowingly transmitting COVID-19 to older teachers, coaches, and staff at risk of more severe disease.”
Heavin said he’s working with the local health department to plan a mass vaccination clinic at the high school on a weekend this month, and he expects about half of the eligible students will probably get the vaccine.
But many parents are skeptical, he said. Already, about 30 percent of students opt out of other vaccines for religious or medical reasons. And a local doctor has cautioned parents against allowing their daughters to be vaccinated against COVID-19, citing a debunked fear that it could lead to infertility. (There is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines cause fertility problems.)
Heavin said he has to “stay neutral” about such a personal topic, but he wants more students to get vaccinated so school operations can normalize. Right now, about 10 percent of students are completely remote while the others are back in person.
“We need kids back in school,” he said. “If that means getting their vaccination, then I hope they get their vaccination.”
He thinks some students might be incentivized by a desire to stop wearing masks. For example, the local health department has said that students will need to wear masks at prom, unless they’re on the dance floor and actively dancing. (Indiana’s school mask mandate makes an exception for students exercising or engaging in strenuous physical activity.) But health officials told Heavin that vaccinated students won’t have to wear a mask at prom at all, which he will likely institute as a policy.
However, Bode said schools shouldn’t let their guards down with vaccinated students just yet and should continue measures like universal masking and social distancing.
“It’s still just one layer of mitigation,” she said. “It’s not everything until everyone gets vaccinated.”