Policies broadly mandating COVID-19 vaccines for school attendance have largely failed to materialize three years into the pandemic, despite suggestions during the initial 2021 vaccine rollout that such requirements might become a key pandemic strategy.
“I think a large part of it is the low uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine for children,” said Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law who has researched vaccine policy.
About 57 percent of U.S. children ages six months to 17 years have not received their first dose of the vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That would make enforcing mandates logistically and politically difficult, Reiss said.
The lack of mandates comes as schools and businesses have largely rolled back precautions like masking, seeking a return to more typical operations.
Here are four reasons why student COVID-19 vaccination mandates didn’t happen, and what that means moving forward.
1. Courts nixed district mandates, and states have rethought their own requirements
Most recently, health officials in California walked back plans for a student mandate this month, saying in a statement that they “continue to strongly recommend COVID-19 immunization for students and staff to keep everyone safer in the classroom,” the Associated Press reported.
The state was the first to roll out a student COVID-19 vaccine requirement in October 2021. Other states failed to follow, and the District of Columbia is the only current state-level jurisdiction that requires its students to be vaccinated against the virus. Local officials there have said they plan to review the policy while enforcement is delayed.
School districts that once considered or announced student COVID-19 vaccine requirements in 2021 also reversed course after courts found only states have the legal authority to issue such requirements.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the first to announce a student vaccine requirement, had already delayed enforcement when a judge issued such a ruling in July. The New York City school system previously required vaccines for student-athletes, but Mayor Eric Adams retracted that rule last September.
2. Compliance is a big concern with many children unvaccinated
Districts that delayed enforcement of their student COVID-19 vaccine mandates—most of which have since been eliminated—have cited concerns about low vaccination rates when they made those decisions.
In November, the District of Columbia city council delayed enforcement of its student vaccine mandate until next school year, noting that 44 percent of children in the district’s traditional public schools were unvaccinated at the time, the Washington Post reported.
“Mandates work when you are trying to close a small gap between compliance and what you want,” said Reiss, the law professor.
For example, state requirements for vaccines that prevent conditions like measles and mumps have helped contribute to a culture change that made the inoculations more routine for parents, she said.
But enforcing a COVID-19 vaccine requirement when many families have opted out would not be “politically palatable,” she said.
And enforcement would mean keeping students out of school at a time when educators are already swimming upstream to address high rates of chronic absenteeism and learning recovery in many areas. In voting to delay D.C.'s mandate, city council member Charles Allen framed his decision as a “choice between two harms”—the harm of the virus vs. the harm of keeping thousands of students out of school.
3. Annual boosters change the calculus
It’s now clear that public health recommendations for COVID-19 vaccines are moving towards annual boosters, like those given for the flu. Public health officials say it would be logistically difficult for schools to enforce a mandate for annual vaccines.
Current requirements typically call for one verification of paperwork for incoming kindergarteners, rather than a yearly review that would take additional time and communications to work.
That’s why schools don’t require the seasonal influenza vaccine, despite its inclusion on the CDC’s pediatric inoculation schedule, Reiss said. The agency formally updated its schedule last week to include the COVID-19 vaccine and subsequent boosters for children. Those are only recommendations, and it’s up to states to establish their own student requirements.
Public health officials have said COVID-19 boosters may soon be updated annually, similar to flu shots. But uptake of existing boosters is already low among children. As of Feb. 8, just 4 percent of children ages 5-11 and 8 percent of children ages 12-17 had received a dose of the bivalent booster, which was made available in the fall, according the most recent CDC data.
4. The public’s attitudes toward the virus changed
Opponents of student COVID-19 vaccine mandates, including lawmakers who filed bills to prevent them, argued that the virus is far less likely to cause serious illness or fatalities among children.
“The science certainly has evolved, the disease certainly has evolved,” said Georgia Republican state Sen. Ben Watson, who voted in favor of a bill last week that would permanently ban COVID-19 vaccine mandates in the Peach State, according to Fox 5 Atlanta.
Supporters of student vaccine requirements said mandates could help normalize the inoculation, establish a vaccination pattern that could help protect students into adulthood, and reduce the virus’s chance of mutating and spreading to more vulnerable populations.
But an uptick in vaccines among the adult population, and a more relaxed public approach to the virus, have made that argument less popular, Reiss said.
About 48 percent of respondents to an August 2022 Gallup poll said they believed children should have to receive a COVID-19 vaccine to attend elementary school. The poll also found declines in support for COVID-19 vaccine requirements for middle, high school, and college students.
Whether or not vaccines are legally required, educators can encourage student vaccinations by providing accurate information to families and by partnering with local health agencies to offer inoculations at school and community events, Reiss said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as Plans to Require Student COVID-19 Vaccinations Flopped. Here’s Why