Will COVID-19 Vaccines Be Required In Schools?

Young girl being vaccinated by a doctor.

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Key Takeaways

  • The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is now authorized for individuals 5 years of age and older.
  • The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines have only been authorized in individuals 18 years of age and older.
  • Vaccine mandates are implemented at the state level where there are compliance variations.
  • Vaccine mandates for schools may be difficult to implement due to state exemptions.

In December, the Food Drug and Administration (FDA) authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use. On February 27, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization for Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine. Many are looking toward the vaccines as a possible solution to the rising COVID-19 cases forcing institutions—like schools—across the country to close. However, despite the authorizations and dissemination of the vaccines, some experts believe vaccine mandates in schools are unlikely to happen.

William Moss, MD, MPH, executive director at the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins, believes that there won’t be a vaccine mandate for schools because of previous vaccination precedents. “Where I see mandatory vaccines are in healthcare settings," Moss tells Verywell. "Many hospitals require that anyone who has patient contact has to get an influenza vaccine. So there’s precedent in those settings. I don’t anticipate a state mandating COVID-19 vaccines for children.” 

What This Means For You

While many colleges and universities are requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for students, it's unlikely that states will issue mandates for K-12 schools. If you are consuming vaccine-related information, take a few extra seconds and double-check the sources to discern whether the information provided is true. Doing this can help you make more informed decisions about your health. 

Challenges In Requiring a Vaccine in Schools

While Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine has received full approval from the FDA for individuals 16 years and older, emergency use authorization has been granted for children and adolescents ages 5 to 15. The CDC is now recommending that everyone 5 years and older get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine has also received full approval from the FDA, though it is only authorized for individuals 18 and older. Moderna is preparing to apply for an expanded emergency use authorization to include adolescents 12 to 17. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has only been authorized for emergency use in adults 18 and older.

Right now, preliminary results from trials have only included children ages 12 and older. “In the coming months, the trials will need to include younger children so that we can be sure about the dosing and make sure that it’s both safe and effective," Moss says. Without testing and FDA authorization, vaccines wouldn’t be allowed to be distributed to children under 12, regardless of the setting.

On March 16, 2021, Moderna announced the launch of a COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial in children ages 6 months to 11 years. On March 31, 2021, Pfizer announced it also has also started giving the first doses in a trial of children ages 6 months to 11 years. Initial results are not expected until later in the year.

Implementing a vaccine mandate would also be challenging because vaccine-related laws are conducted at the state level, with variation in vaccine compliance across state lines. All 50 states have legislation requiring certain vaccines for students with some medical and religious exemptions. Currently, there are 15 states that allow philosophical exemptions for those who object to getting immunizations due to personal reasons or moral beliefs.

Vaccine compliance also varies at the school level. For example, private schools are more likely to have higher rates of exemptions to school immunization requirements compared to public schools, a research study finds. Exemption rates were significantly higher in states where personal belief exemptions were allowed. Children attending a private school may be at higher risk of vaccine-preventable diseases than public school children. 

Even if a COVID-19 vaccine was authorized in children, a school mandate would be difficult to achieve because of the way COVID-19 expresses in children. The symptomatic profile of children with COVID-19 is much less severe compared to older adults. As a result, parents may not feel an urgent need to have their children vaccinated.

Dan Cooper, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of California-Irvine, contrasts this with something like polio, which had dramatic and visible effects during the first half of the 20th century.

“Polio could cripple children and required assisted ventilation," Copper tells Verywell. "So the idea of finding a vaccine would prevent that, when you think about the risk to benefit ratio, was very different than for COVID-19."

For polio, the benefit of getting the vaccine outweighed the risk of getting a disease that could cause paralysis in children.

In a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 41% of parents of adolescents ages 12-17 said that their child had already received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine or would be getting vaccinated right away. For parents of children under age 12, however, only about 25% of those surveyed said they will get their child vaccinated as soon as a vaccine is authorized for their age group and one-third said they will take a “wait and see” approach.

Monitoring Vaccine Misinformation 

Vaccine hesitancy among parents predates the COVID-19 pandemic. In 1998, researchers published a research study in The Lancet that suggested that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to developmental disorders including autism in children.

The paper has since been retracted because there was not sufficient data to conclude that the MMR vaccine and autism are linked, and because of serious issues with how the research had been conducted. However, the published story still holds ramifications in today’s society. After the study was published, many parents across the world chose not to vaccinate their kids out of fear of complications.

While misinformation and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccines may be causing confusion about vaccinations among the general public, it's important to stay informed. “I think all parents want to do what’s best for their children. And sometimes, fear or misinformation around vaccines can complicate that decision-making process,” Moss says. “We want to protect our children. I actually think the best way is to vaccinate them, not avoid vaccination.” 

To stay informed about COVID-19 vaccinations and information about upcoming candidates, you can visit the FDA COVID-19 website.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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