Science Q&A

Many Schools Don’t Teach About the Science of Vaccines. Here’s Why They Should

By Arianna Prothero — July 02, 2021 7 min read
Ainslee Bolejack, freshman at Shawnee Heights High School in Tecumseh, Kansas, prepares to receive her first COVID-19 vaccine on May 17, 2021, at Topeka High. Unified School District 501 held a clinic at all their high schools welcoming students now 12-years-old and up to receive their vaccination.

There is a tremendous amount of focus right now among public health experts and school and district leaders on how to assuage parents’ and students’ concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines. Polling shows a large share of families remains reluctant to get their children inoculated against the coronavirus.

But beyond the immediate issue of the COVID-19 vaccine, schools have an important part to play in confronting misinformation and mistrust in vaccines in the long-term, public health experts say, by giving students through the science curriculum a deeper understanding of how vaccines, the immune system, and viruses work.

Some parents are staunchly anti-vaccination, but most people are what public health officials call vaccine hesitant—they’re unsure about vaccines but their attitudes are not immutable.

To unpack how vaccine education in K-12 schools can have long-lasting impacts on students’ attitudes toward vaccines, Education Week spoke with Charlotte Moser, the assistant director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The center has developed a free to use, K-12 science curriculum on vaccines through its Vaccine Makers Project. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Through your work, what would you say is the general public’s level of understanding about how vaccines work?

The public in general is much like that of a classroom in that there’s a variety of levels of understanding. So, if you think about a bell-shaped curve, some people have complete confidence in vaccines and then other people don’t trust them at all. But most people are really under the big middle part of that curve. So that’s the group that we really think about a lot because those people can really be moved in either direction towards the outer edge of that curve based on what questions they have, who they find to answer them, and how they’re answered.

Moser headshot BS

And so I think how that group moves is really based on their access to accurate information, but also their ability and desire to critically evaluate Information. I think those are both skills that can be taught to students in classrooms, and that’s one of the reasons that we added our Vaccine Makers Project and started to think about students in classrooms.

The only other thing I would add related to that, is that being able to critically evaluate information doesn’t just help when it comes to vaccine-related topics of decisionmaking, but really any information. And I think that’s really where society is right now, grappling as we’ve had these new technologies make information much more easily accessible. And we’ve also had people start to use those technologies in nefarious ways so that people are often confused about what is knowledge and truth in some cases.

That is an excellent point, that this isn’t just about vaccines. These are lessons that students could take and apply to other things, even the news that they read.

Right. Yeah, I mean, I think that’s one of the most important things to think about is when we’re talking with teachers, we talk about that skill set that can be taught in a science classroom, that students can take away and apply to virtually any aspect of their lives for years to come.

See also

Corey Ruth, a student at McDonogh 35 high school in Louisiana, was unsure of getting the COVID-19 vaccine until his athletic trainer talked to him about it.
Corey Ruth, a student at McDonogh 35 high school in Louisiana, was unsure about getting the COVID-19 vaccine until his athletic trainer talked to him.
Harlin Miller for Education Week

Let’s talk a little bit more specifically about how teaching about vaccines in schools is going to help overcome hesitancy towards vaccines. How will this help students sift through bad information about vaccines?

I think there are both immediate and delayed benefits. When we think about the immediate benefits, a lot of times kids don’t understand why they need to get vaccines. And so that’s one important piece of talking about vaccines in a science class. The other is that it’s a great example that students can relate to in terms of how science relates to their daily lives, especially, coming out of what we all lived through last year.

But when we think about the delayed aspects of teaching these types of topics, obviously there’s going to be a subset of students who go into the sciences or health-related fields. But really this kind of information is going to apply to the future for every single student, no matter what career path they take because they’re all going to make not only vaccine decisions, but health-related decisions.

One example, if you will, is that we see that misinformation about vaccines often is indicative of the fact that people don’t understand how their immune systems work. So, when people say children are given too many vaccines that overwhelm their immune systems, or that babies are too young to be vaccinated, if you understand … how your immune system works, you know it’s working from the moment we’re born until the moment we die. So, the number of vaccines that a person is given at any one time or even over the course of a lifetime is nothing compared to what our immune systems fight every single day.

The immune system, viruses, vaccines, these are all really complicated topics. How do you make this stuff age-appropriate?

So, when we developed our materials, for example, we realized that elementary students aren’t going to be learning about the immune system per se, but they do understand what a germ is. So, we would focus on making sure kids understand that not all germs are the same and that not all germs are bad. Some germs help us. And that there are different ways that they can protect themselves from germs, like washing their hands or getting their vaccines.

One of our middle school lessons uses the study of polio and we introduce the variety of scientists who worked on polio. Some of them were working on vaccine development; some of them were working on treatments; some of them were just trying to study the virus and understand it. That’s very relevant to something like the COVID-19 pandemic that kids are living through right now. There are groups of scientists working on developing vaccines, groups of scientists working on developing treatments, and groups of scientists working to learn more about SARS-CoV-2. So, it really starts to bring together the idea of knowledge building in a very rich and real way.

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If I was a 12-year-old and I am now eligible to get the Pfizer vaccine, how would you explain the messenger RNA to me? (The mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna are a new type of vaccine, although mRNA vaccines have been in development for two decades.)

If the child would want to know that, we’re going to try to talk to them on their level. You know, the vaccine contains a set of instructions that tells your cells how to make the “spike protein” for the virus that causes COVID-19. Once the cells in our bodies process the vaccine, which happens in special cells of the immune system, those cells put pieces of the protein on its surface so that they can alert other cells of the immune system to get activated because there’s a supposed attack.

Really, it’s the vaccine, but your body doesn’t know that, and when your immune system cells become activated, they work together to do three important things: they get rid of the cells that have these pieces of protein on their surface by killing them; they make antibodies, which can fight or make the virus not enter our cells; and they create memory cells that will stay in our bodies and serve as guards so that if you are exposed to the virus out in the community, your body will recognize it and you won’t get sick.

How should a teacher respond if, say, a high school student in class challenges the science around vaccines, maybe claims that they cause autism or infertility?

This type of situation can be viewed as an opportunity for helping students learn how to evaluate information. The Vaccine Education Center and the Vaccine Makers Project, as well as other groups, offer a variety of tools for helping students learn the skills needed to evaluate information (such as website evaluation criteria and discussions of logical fallacies).

Having students work through considerations such as the source of the information, primary versus secondary sources of data, and the messages from multiple reliable sources can give students tangible skills that can be applied in a variety of settings.

Likewise, teachers can leverage the opportunity to have a larger discussion related to the difference between knowledge gained through scientific means and individual- or family-based beliefs and values, acknowledging that both are important, but they are different.

Scientifically speaking, vaccines have been shown not to cause autism or infertility, but families or individuals making vaccine decisions are likely to not only consider the science, but also their beliefs and values. This kind of conversation can help students start to consider the roles of knowledge and emotion in decisionmaking and can be used as an example of why risk communication, as a field, is so complex.

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Palmyra Middle School English teacher Bethany Cover, far right, leads 7th and 8th graders on a walk to conduct a bird census as part of a science camp this week on the Appalachian trail near Palmyra, Pa. Students write about their scientific observations for the project, which integrates science lessons across the curriculum.
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Courtesy of Jeff Remington