Will schools mandate COVID vaccines? Should they?

This week, most students in the U.S. returned to school. Also this week, the U.S. is setting grim new records for daily COVID-19 cases. The result is a full-blown logistical and policy-making mess for school and government officials, parents, and the kids themselves—mostly about whether or not to require vaccines. Here’s a quick look at the ways school districts and local officials nationwide are responding, to help you predict how all this is likely to pan out as the spring semester unfolds.

What is the policy on vaccines at most schools?

It varies tremendously, like most public-health rules for this pandemic. Regardless of whether you’re looking state by state, city by city, or school district by school district, it’s a patchwork of orders mandating vaccines and orders barring vaccine mandates. Among the states:

  • Washington and Oregon have passed mandates for all teachers.
  • Connecticut, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, New Mexico, California, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia have all passed laws requiring teachers to either get vaccinated or undergo regular testing. (New Mexico’s definition of “fully vaccinated” was also just updated to include a booster.)
  • Ten states have rules banning vaccine mandates altogether: Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Indiana, Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, and Montana.
  • Meanwhile, the Biden administration encourages states to set teacher vaccine mandates but has stopped short of throwing in students—it merely urges schools to test them routinely.

Only one state applies its vaccinate-or-test requirement to students, and that’s California. However, Governor Gavin Newsom has been clear about his priorities: Asked last month what he’d do with thousands of unvaccinated students violating L.A.’s stricter student vaccine mandate, he said, “We want to keep the kids in school. . . . We don’t want to see 34,000 kids sent home.” (Enforcement of L.A.’s measure has since been delayed until the fall.)

Are school districts instituting student vaccines?

Some, like the Los Angeles school district, are. Others, like New York City’s, have rolled out mandates that only apply to certain student groups, like high-school athletes. Many are still on the fence but beginning to talk openly about requiring shots. Ditto local officials: New York City Mayor Eric Adams says he’s mulling a student vaccine mandate for fall 2022. New York Governor Kathy Hochul has also expressed support for a mandate for school-age kids, but that would need the State Assembly’s backing, and some members have said, “It’s quite premature.”

Separately, some private schools have put student mandates in place. Back in November, two elite New York City schools—the Spence School and the Chapin School—told students that spring semester enrollment depended on them arriving back vaccinated. The Horace Mann School has gone a step further and already mandated booster shots by February 1.

Other factors may stand in the way of broader mandates

For starters, teachers’ unions haven’t been outspoken backers of mandates. Their support has trickled out in recent months; America’s two most powerful teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, signaled support in August. But even then, it left open to the possibility that unvaccinated teachers could simply submit to regular testing instead of choosing to get a shot.

The biggest hurdle may be science

It’s never been established that schools are a worrying source of COVID transmission. In early 2021, numerous prominent studies found a very low risk—one published in Pediatrics, others in the New England Journal of Medicine and a European epidemiology journal called Eurosurveillance. A separate study that focused on New York schools, America’s largest school district, reported “remarkably low” transmission as well. Data showed just 0.4% of the district’s COVID tests came back positive. Of these cases, only 0.5% of the infected individuals’ contacts got the coronavirus themselves.

Others caution the need to smooth out the disruptions in schools and get kids’ lives back to normal. If last year’s push to close schools didn’t help students, as certain evidence suggests, then the argument goes that fights against vaccine mandates might be equally counterproductive.

Yet, officials continue to argue safe is better than sorry. The White House’s COVID containment plan points to CDC studies showing the COVID hospitalization rate for children leaps almost fourfold in America’s least-vaccinated states compared to its most-vaccinated. That’s why the administration’s plan is to push vaccines and masking as widely as possible—like requiring teachers in the federal government’s childcare program, Head Start, to be vaccinated. That measure didn’t escape being challenged either, though: A federal judge blocked that mandate over the weekend, after 24 states sued to shoot it down. The judge’s preliminary injunction also eliminated a mask mandate for Head Start students ages 2 and older.