Schools have a big interest in students getting vaccinated against COVID-19. It protects students, especially those with weakened immune systems who are at greater risk of getting severely ill with COVID-19; and it shields older teachers and school staff from getting sick. Plus, vaccinated children and adolescents are important to stopping the spread and mutation of the coronavirus nationally.
Schools have long been a resource for health information for families, and public health experts see schools as a key partner in helping families overcome their concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines. But how schools approach this potentially delicate issue is very important.
The vaccines against COVID-19 are new—only one vaccine from the drugmaker Pfizer has been approved for children as young as 12—and for that reason many parents are hesitant about getting their children immunized against the coronavirus.
Education Week spoke with several experts on public health and vaccine hesitancy and came up with this list of best practices for school and district leaders about how to discuss, encourage, and inform families about the COVID-19 vaccine.
What to Do:
- Provide information from trusted resources, such as a local health department or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
- 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.
- 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. The vaccines are only approved for use under emergency use authorization, which makes them difficult if impossible legally to mandate. 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.
Remember, vaccine hesitancy (the public health term for the delay in accepting vaccines or refusing them altogether) is a complicated issue and addressing it can be a delicate dance. This is true not only for COVID-19 vaccines, but also routine childhood immunizations.
To read more advice from public health experts on vaccine hesitancy, and to learn how one school district is tackling the issue, check out this story from Education Week.