Student Covid-19 vaccine mandate necessary for school safety

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Atlanta Public Schools

While Atlanta Public Schools has made efforts to support widespread Covid-19 vaccination, many eligible students still remain unvaccinated. A student vaccination mandate is the only way to ensure a safe in-person schooling environment.

Editorial Board

Despite returning to in-person schooling this year, the continued spread of COVID-19 has made it apparent the ongoing pandemic is anything but over. Widespread vaccination among students is crucial to creating a safe environment at school, but only about 18 percent of eligible students in Atlanta Public Schools are fully vaccinated. 

To this end, Atlanta Public Schools should mandate that all eligible students must be fully vaccinated to attend school in-person.

Cases among children rose significantly during the month of August as schools reopened, and reported cases among children aged 11 to 17 have increased at a greater rate than any other age group from Sept. 20 to Oct. 3. While weekly testing for students is helpful for identifying positive cases and limiting school-based exposures, wearing masks and social distancing is not enough to protect students, school personnel and other members of the community.

Student vaccination mandates for COVID-19 have already been issued in other public school districts across the country. Los Angeles became the first major school district to announce a vaccination mandate for eligible students, and California has since followed with the first statewide mandate. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, and multiple school districts in Virginia are requiring students participating in sports to be vaccinated. While no school district in Georgia has issued a mandate for student vaccinations, City Schools of Decatur has announced all school teachers and staff will be required to provide proof of vaccination by the end of November.

While there is reluctance for student vaccination, student vaccination mandates are nothing new either. Schools already require vaccinations against other diseases such as measles and mumps. Immunizations are a regular, accepted requirement for attending school, and serve a crucial role in creating a safe environment among students. While some people worry that a COVID-19 vaccination mandate would infringe upon their personal freedoms, such a mandate would be following previously established immunization policies. 

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has also been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for children 16 and older, and children 12-15 can receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine under an emergency use authorization. This provides further support for the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine for students and alleviates previous safety approval concerns that may have prevented a student vaccination mandate.

Just this year, APS updated its immunization requirements for a meningococcal booster shot after consulting the recommendations of public health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). This same organization supports the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccinations and recommends all children 12 and older receive the COVID-19 vaccine. APS should continue to follow the AAP’s recommendations by mandating that eligible students be vaccinated.

As mandating COVID-19 vaccines is a necessary step in protecting students and staff, APS must also continue its efforts to provide COVID-19 vaccination access for students who might not otherwise be able to receive the vaccine. At Midtown, free vaccinations for students and school personnel have been offered on several occasions, and any vaccination mandate would require coordination with additional opportunities for students to receive the vaccine at school. A vaccination mandate must be met with a renewed commitment to making sure access is not a barrier to getting the vaccine.

Access must also be a priority by providing essential health information to parents and students. Many parents are reluctant to vaccinate their children as a result of concerns about the long-term effects of the vaccine or whether the vaccine has been tested enough. In communities of color, vaccine hesitancy has been fueled by historical medical mistreatment, and student vaccination rates among APS schools reflect the need for a renewed emphasis on informing students before they get vaccinated. It is imperative to school environments that APS mandate that all students get vaccinated, but APS must also do everything it can to ensure that parents and students feel confident in the health and safety of such a decision.

While APS has a responsibility to protect the health and safety of students, it also has the responsibility to offer an education to all students. Students who refuse to get vaccinated should not be allowed on-campus, but a suitable alternative must be provided by the district. In San Diego, students who do not comply with the school district’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate will be enrolled in the district’s online education program rather than in-person schooling. APS should do the same with the already established Atlanta Virtual Academy. Unvaccinated students should have the opportunity to continue their education virtually, but they should not have the opportunity to put the health and safety of others at school at risk.

Empowered by the considerable precedent for a student vaccination mandate and the proven safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine, APS needs to make the necessary decision to protect students, school personnel and other members of the community by mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for eligible students as a requirement for in-person schooling.

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