What’s next for schools after COVID vaccine OK’d for children?

Alison Yin for EdSource

Kindergartners during recess at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, May 17, 2017.

With this week’s approval of a Covid vaccine for children, California schools and parents began looking ahead to a new era — one that might mean fewer mask and testing requirements, but one where deep ideological divisions remain.

A day after the Centers for Disease Control gave preliminary approval for children ages 5 to 11 to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, California followed suit and allowed children in California to begin receiving jabs as soon as Thursday. Some counties, including Santa Clara, have already started accepting appointments for children.

“This is going to give a lot of parents peace of mind,” said Dr. Norma Perez, a pediatrician and medical director of AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles. “We’re 20 months into this pandemic, and this is a really important step to get us back to a state of normalcy.”

Vaccinating children will be a crucial step toward achieving herd immunity, where virus transmission tapers off because so many people have been exposed through vaccination or by becoming infected, Perez said.

The federal government plans to give California 1.2 million doses of the children’s vaccine, enough to vaccinate all 5-to-11-year-olds in the next few weeks, health authorities said. Vaccines will be available at more than 4,000 clinics and schools across California, and the state is launching a public information campaign to encourage children and their parents to get vaccinated.

“Vaccines are how we end this pandemic, and the ability to vaccinate more children who have remained vulnerable to Covid-19 strengthens our fight against this deadly virus. Californians ages 5-11 can now get the same robust protection that has helped save countless lives,” California Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly and director of the California Department of Public Health and State Public Health Officer Dr. Tomás J. Aragón said in a joint statement Wednesday.

“Last year’s winter surge was devastating in our state, and it is critically important that all eligible Californians supercharge their protection against Covid-19 ahead of the winter months,” they said.

School districts are also encouraging parents to get their children vaccinated, but so far it appears no districts — except Culver City Unified — are requiring it. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last month that Covid vaccinations will be required for children to attend school the first semester after the Food and Drug Administration grants full approval to the vaccines, which could be as soon as January 2022 but will likely be later.

Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified and Fresno Unified are among the districts that will be offering free Covid vaccines for 5-to-11-years-olds over the next few weeks.

“We are delighted to be able to offer voluntary vaccine access to students in this age group,” Los Angeles Unified announced Wednesday. “The Covid-19 vaccine is highly encouraged for children ages 5-11. … Covid-19 vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to protect our students, staff and families, and public schools are natural sites for our students and families to receive this life-saving vaccine.”

Meanwhile, parents’ response to the vaccine approval for children is mixed. Only 27% of parents of 5-to-11-year-olds nationwide said they’d immediately get their child vaccinated against Covid-19 once a vaccine is available, according to a survey released Oct. 28 by the Kaiser Family Foundation. About one-third said they’d never get their child vaccinated, and the rest said they’d wait and see.

In some parts of California, such as Shasta County, students and parents have staged school walkouts to protest vaccine requirements, saying vaccines should be a personal choice, not a public health mandate.

Some parents have expressed concern about possible side effects from the vaccine, including a rare heart inflammation called myocarditis. In trials, no children ages 5-to-11 contracted the illness, although older children, especially boys, are more susceptible, according to the CDC. Most cases are mild and patients recover at home, Perez said.

So far, the most common side effects of the Covid vaccine, for children and adults, are sore arms, fatigue and mild fever, Perez said.

Megan Bacigalupi, director of a statewide parents’ group that advocated for schools in California to reopen, said she was thrilled about the vaccine approval but wants to see the state lift mask requirements for children at school and ease up on Covid testing.

“We have kids getting vaccinated, teachers getting booster shots, adults getting vaccinated at high rates. Schools are becoming incredibly safe,” she said. “I cannot imagine the uproar in, say, eight weeks when people see 18,000 fans at Chase Center not wearing masks but meanwhile a group of 6-year-olds who’ve all been vaccinated still have to wear masks. … It shows we are not prioritizing the needs of children.”

On Oct. 20, the state Department of Public Health said it would consider updating its mask requirements for children by Nov. 1, but so far has not issued any changes to the requirement that children wear masks indoors and outdoors while at school.

It’s probably too early to relax mask and testing protocols because of the looming flu and cold season, Perez said. Also, it will likely take a few months before all children receive their Covid vaccine.

But for now, the CDC’s approval of the Covid vaccine for children is something to celebrate, Perez said.

“The CDC would not have approved this vaccine if it was not safe and effective,” she said. “This is something we’ve been looking forward to for months. … How does it feel to finally be here? It feels wonderful.”

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