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Could A Student Vaccine Mandate Be On The Horizon For JCPS?

Liz Schlemmer

Members of the Jefferson County Board of Education are interested in a student vaccination policy for Jefferson County Public Schools. Members say they’re encouraged by Pfizer-BioNTech’s Monday morning announcement that its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective in children down to age 5.

“This has to be considered,” District 3 board member James Craig wrote on Twitter.

“When the emergency use authorization is issued for children's vaccines, [JCPS] will need to make this a bullet-point on our next agenda. Why not require weekly testing or vaccines for all students? There would be no good reason at that point,” he wrote.

Pfizer said Monday that the second phase of its three-part trial showed the vaccine produces “robust neutralizing antibody responses” and was “well tolerated” in children ages 5-11. The company says the antibody response and side effects were similar to those produced in people aged 16-25. The results are from a study of 2,268 children in the age group. 

Pfizer’s next step is to submit the results to the FDA and other regulators for Emergency Use Authorization. If the approval process goes smoothly, children as young as five could start receiving the vaccine this fall.

Vaccination against COVID-19 is voluntary for all JCPS staff and students. However, the board recently passed a policy requiring unvaccinated staff to present a negative COVID-19 test every two weeks. There is no such testing mandate for students, but about 10% of JCPS students are signed up for regular weekly testing offered at school.

Since the start of the school year on August 11, JCPS has confirmed COVID-19 in 3,327 students and 445 staff. That’s about 3.5% of the student population and 2.5% of staff. About 15,600 students have been quarantined total, and 267 staff. 

District 2 Board Member Chris Kolb, who is among the most COVID-cautious on the board, said he would like to see a vaccine requirement for all eligible students, except for those with medical or religious exemptions.

“I don’t think there should be a testing opt-out for anyone,” Kolb said. “I think we’d see a lot fewer cases, number one. And fewer cases means a lot fewer quarantines,” he said noting that vaccinated students and staff do not have to quarantine, as long as they don’t have symptoms.

Kolb was the sole no-vote when the board voted on the vaccine-or-testing mandate for employees because he didn’t think it went far enough.

Meanwhile, District 5 member Linda Duncan said she doesn’t think mandating the vaccine for students without a test-out option is a good idea in the current political climate.

“I think it would just generate more and more disruption and unrest,” Duncan said. 

School boards across the country, including Jefferson County have been the target of right-wing activists who oppose vaccine requirements, mask mandates, and even testing.

“I’ve had parents just scream,” Duncan said. “It’s like they want everything: they want their child in school. They want their child not vaccinated. They want their child able to be sitting there and, if contagious, spreading things. I mean, it’s just unbelievable.”

Duncan, a conservative voice on the board, said she would support a policy that required all unvaccinated students to get tested weekly for COVID-19, with an option for vaccinated students to forgo the test.

“People have to be reasonable—they have to be reasonable. There are only so many options that we have,” she said.  “If we have the logistics in place to be able to do that, I wish we could just weekly test all of our students.”

However, Duncan said she’s not comfortable with “pushing the administration,” and wants to wait for JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio to initiate discussions on any vaccination or testing requirements.

“It kind of concerns me that we keep trying to jump ahead of him,” she said.

A large swath of eligible JCPS students still aren’t vaccinated. State data shows 61% of 12 to 17-year-olds in Jefferson County have received at least one dose. No students under 12 have, unless they are one of a few thousand worldwide to participate in a drug trial.

Meanwhile young people continue to make up a growing share of infections. Officials say that’s because they are less likely to be vaccinated, and because the delta variant is so contagious. Hospitalizations of young people remain rare, but they’ve increased significantly since July, and doctors say it’s not always clear why some children get sicker than others.

“Enough is enough,” Craig said in a text message to WFPL. “Students are suffering in this district, and with safe, effective ways to fight COVID-19, all options must be on the table for JCPS at all times.”

Board members Sarah Cole McIntosh, Corrie Shull, Diane Porter and Joe Marshall did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A recent national poll by EdWeek shows support growing dramatically among educators for vaccine requirements. 60% of educators polled said they believed eligible students should be required to be vaccinated in order to enter the school building. 63% supported vaccine requirements for staff.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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