School districts in growing numbers are putting some financial muscle behind the nationwide push to protect the public against COVID-19, offering cash payments as high as $1,000 to employees who get vaccinated.
The trend began several months ago, as the pace of vaccinations nationwide slowed to a crawl and state governments began looking for ways to convince those hesitant to get the vaccine that it would be worth their while.
The urgency for getting people vaccinated to prevent needless suffering and death has increased in recent weeks as the Delta variant, a far more transmissible strain of COVID-19, has become the dominant form of the disease in the United States.
Here are a few examples of school districts’ financial incentives for employees who get COVID-19 vaccines. Several of these initiatives were announced in the last week, and most of them will draw on funds from three rounds of federal relief aid designed to help schools cover pandemic-related expenses and help students recover missed learning opportunities. The use of those funds raises questions with no easy answers about whether incentives represent the best use of available dollars.
- Henry County schools in Georgia: $1,000
- Detroit schools in Michigan: $500 and two sick days
- Porterville schools in California: $500
- Anderson County schools in South Carolina: $500
- Marlboro County schools in South Carolina: $500
- Manteca schools in California: $350
- Little Rock schools in Arkansas: $300
- Joplin schools in Missouri: $250 and a chance to win one of four $2,500 cash prizes
- San Marcos schools in Texas: $250
- Searcy schools in Arkansas: $200
- Orange County schools in Florida: $200
- Anderson schools in Indiana: $150
Some schools are also trying to entice vaccine-eligible students with money. The Pottsville school district in Pennsylvania is offering vaccinated students a chance to win one of two $200 Amazon gift cards. The Reading schools in that state will enter vaccinated students into a raffle, with more prizes available once students receive their second vaccine dose.
The board of supervisors in Polk County, Iowa, will offer $100 in additional funding to youth groups and extracurricular programs like sports teams and bands for each of their enrolled students who gets vaccinated. Leaders of those groups can use the funds for new equipment, uniforms, travel, or other related expenses that students could benefit from.
Last week, President Joe Biden urged states to offer $100 incentives to people who get vaccinated, and recommended schools host vaccine clinics for children above the age of 12 who haven’t gotten their shots yet.
The state of Louisiana is even offering to pay people $10 every time they get tested for COVID-19 as part of a testing program in school districts. Several school districts, including those in East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, and Orleans parishes, have signed on to participate, according to a report in the Advocate.
Vaccine incentives aim to drive up immunization numbers
Roughly 70 percent of adult Americans have received at least one vaccine dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The widespread scientific consensus is that all COVID-19 vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S. pose no major health risks to recipients, offer robust protection against the contagious and deadly COVID-19 virus, and contribute to diminishing spread of the virus in surrounding communities.
A small percentage of fully vaccinated individuals may test positive for COVID-19 or experience symptoms. But unvaccinated people are experiencing the overwhelming majority of cases, serious illnesses, and hospitalizations. In some states, virtually no one hospitalized with COVID-19 was already fully vaccinated, according to a Kaiser Health News report.
A substantial minority of eligible Americans, however, hasn’t gotten their shots yet, for at least one of several overlapping reasons. In some cases, they want to, but don’t have access because of a lack of health insurance, transportation options, child care, and flexible work hours. Some people mistakenly believe they will be charged a fee for the vaccine, and indeed a handful of people have been erroneously billed. Black and Latinx Americans have been vaccinated at significantly lower rates than white Americans.
Far more Democrats than Republicans nationwide have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. Some prominent Republican leaders in recent weeks have ramped up calls for vaccine uptake, while others continue to sow doubt and spread misinformation about the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson.
Financial incentives may fall short
Schools, operating at the center of every community in the United States, could serve as a crucial hub for converting and providing access to vaccine-hesitant populations.
The vaccine incentive program could be worthwhile for schools if it allows for a smoother return to low-risk in-person instruction, said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab and school finance researcher for Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
She has a few ideas for school administrators that she believes could make the effort to incentivize students in particular even more effective:
- Survey parents and families about their attitudes on financial incentives for COVID-19 vaccines before making a final decision. The federal government requires districts to engage in “meaningful consultation” with the community before spending pandemic relief aid, and “doing so might surface some insight on whether and how to do it, and if so, the right amount to pay,” Roza said.
- Require students to come to campus for vaccination or to show proof of vaccination before they get their incentive money. In the process, give them a tour of campus, offer orientation programming, and help students who got used to remote learning during the pandemic get re-acquainted with in-person instruction. This approach would also help establish trust between schools and families that might otherwise not interact.
- Hire a contractor to process payments to students and families. That process can be complicated if district finance officers are understaffed, and parents will appreciate it if goes smoothly.
Not everyone is on board with paying people to get vaccinated, though. Harald Schmidt, assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy for the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, says financial incentives are a “blunt tool” that can ignore the complex reasons why people are reluctant to get vaccinated, and the factors that might help change their mind.
“To many people, these initiatives can seem like saying ‘come and get it’ in a way that doesn’t meet people where they are, physically and psychologically,” he wrote in an email.
Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools in New Jersey, wonders whether poor districts would benefit from spending precious funds on an initiative that might not sway those skeptical of vaccines. She also worries that already-contentious school board meetings could be overrun by anti-vaccine protests decrying the use of public funds for this purpose.
Proponents of the approach see it as the right thing to do, whether it brings skeptics off the fence or not.
“I think it’s time for Joplin Schools for a, more or less, small amount of money to reward our staff for doing the right thing,” school board member Rylee Hartwell said during a board meeting last week, according to the Joplin Globe. “We do want to have the most normal year we possibly can because our kids deserve that.”
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.