The prospects for a safe return to traditional in-person instruction in Louisiana schools got a lift earlier this month when almost 250,000 teenagers aged 12 to 15 became eligible to get vaccinated against the deadly coronavirus.

The response so far, though, has been modest. The bulk of new teen vaccinations are coming from the New Orleans and Baton Rouge regions, and many parishes have had just a handful of takers.

About 5% of school-age children in East Baton Rouge have gotten at least their first shot of the vaccine. Statewide, about 26,142 of the 800,000 school-age children have gotten one, about 3.3%.

At current rates, maybe a quarter of the children in this age range will be at least partially vaccinated by early August when the new school year starts. And rates are expected to dip over the summer as initial enthusiasm wears off.

That’s not stopping schools across the state from moving quickly to return to pre-pandemic norms, shedding many of the safety restrictions that have been in place over the past year. That includes no longer having to wear masks, a mandate that Gov. John Bel Edwards lifted last week.

Throughout the pandemic, mask-wearing has been a linchpin of the state’s effort to limit school-level spread of COVID 19. And it remains at the top of the list of prevention strategies promoted by the federal Centers for Disease Control.

The move took effect immediately. Summer school programs, which start up this week across Louisiana could take advantage of the new freedom and go maskless.

More state-imposed minimum rules for COVID safety in schools are expiring June 30 after summer school ends, and there are no plans to replace them.

Children are the least at risk from the virus. But a small percentage do still get sick.

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that 1 to 3% of hospital patients for COVID in this country are children. Seven children in Louisiana have died of COVID since the start of the pandemic.

In addition, children make up a quarter of the state’s population. Consequently, Louisiana can’t reach herd immunity — estimates range from 70% to 95% of the population, depending on who you ask — without vaccinating a large number of children. That becomes even more important in a state where only about 40% of adults have been fully vaccinated, one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

As part of a new statewide informational campaign, State Health Officer Joseph Kanter and 12 pediatricians on May 20 issued a statement urging teenagers to get vaccinated, not only to protect their own health, but also to protect the two million adult Louisianans who have yet to get their shots.

“By their social nature, teens have proven to be very effective spreaders of COVID-19,” the doctors wrote. “The availability of COVID vaccines in 12- to 15-year-olds can make the coming school year safer and more normal, but only if families and adolescents choose to get vaccinated. Vaccination against COVID-19 is important for the health of all our children.”

Dr. Elizabeth Seiter, a pediatrician in Baton Rouge, is one of the signatories to that letter.

She sees a mix of families in her practice. Some have been eager for the vaccine for months — “They were waiting for it to be available,” she said — while some are on the fence and others are extremely skeptical.

She said she gets questions about the vaccines daily. She gives them the best information she can as well as links to reputable medical websites to try to counteract the rampant misinformation. She said she’s made some inroads with some patients — teens themselves are often more open than their parents — but she said she’s been surprised by how quickly patients who trust her on other medical matters question her when it comes to COVID.

“They’ve trusted you with their kids their whole life … why are they not trusting their pediatricians with their kids on this issue?” Dr. Seiter asked.

In Baton Rouge, Mayor Sharon Weston-Broome has several initiatives:

  • The city-parish sent home vaccination literature with thousands of middle and high school students in Baton Rouge public schools when the 2020-21 school year ended earlier this month.
  • A vaccination site at the Mall of Louisiana is offering vaccinations to those 12 years old and older, and a health professional is onsite to answer questions. The site is also giving out $10 visa gift cards, coloring sheets and other kid-friendly materials.
  • Radio and internet interviews and promotions featuring local pediatricians.

The Rev. Errol Domangue, pastor of Elm Grove Baptist Church in the Eden Park area of Baton Rouge, said he’s been encouraging vaccinations at his church, but it’s not been easy. The church has lost track during the pandemic of some of the young people who previously participated in its youth ministry.

“As far as we’re concerned, we’re having a difficult time reaching people, and it’s that much more difficult with teenagers,” Domangue said.

Vaccination drives have run up against concerns about the safety of the vaccine, distrust of the government, but also just indifference.

“It is all uphill,” he said. “They are not that interested.”

Urgency has dimmed as pandemic has eased.

Case counts have declined Among school-age children in Louisiana and the Baton Rouge region as vaccinations became more common, bottoming out in early April. Counts have inched up since. They are currently higher than they were at the start of summer a year ago, but well below the start of 2021, when cases peaked.

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Schools have likewise seen steep declines in COVID cases during the same period. Adult cases have fallen the most, coinciding with vaccinations of school employees starting Feb. 22. Student counts, though, inched back up late in the school year.

School and public health leaders have argued that cases reported in schools typically involve people being infected outside of schools via community spread. And there are now several medical studies suggesting the same, that schools have generally been effective in limiting the spread of the disease.

State Schools Superintendent Cade Brumley portrays the past school year as a clear success story.

“We have been able to have school in the state of Louisiana,” Brumley said earlier this month. “We have been able to keep employees and students safe.”

That safety record is being put immediately to the test.

With no statewide mask mandate, local school districts now have to decide whether that will continue. Most are expected to drop rules on masks.

One exception is Orleans Parish, where the superintendent has announced that the mask rules will remain in place. East Baton Rouge school leaders have yet to announce their mask plans.

Mask-wearing isn’t the only safety measure on the wane.

The minimum safety rules that are expiring June 30 include limits on the numbers of people allowed in classrooms, school buildings and school buses, as well as requirements that students have their temperature checked upon arrival at school and repeatedly wash their hands through the day. Just like masks, local school leaders will have to decide what practices to continue.

The Louisiana Department of Education is shifting to an advisory role. In mid-June, the agency plans to update its guidance on COVID safety rules, but the guide won’t have the force of law.

“Systems will continue to work with their local health officials as they have since the start of the pandemic,” said Ted Beasley, a spokesman for the state agency.

Not all rules are going away, at least not yet.

Louisiana still requires social distancing of six feet. The CDC, however, is now recommending that students can keep just three feet apart if there’s not too much spread of COVID in the surrounding community. The federal agency still recommends six-foot distancing for adults in schools as well as for choir and sports as well as in common areas.

And schools still have to send home for a week or more individuals who show signs of being sick or who have come into close contact with the virus.

If there’s a resurgence of the virus next school year, adult educators who have not been vaccinated are the most vulnerable. It’s not clear how many there are, since the state does not track that number.

The CDC recently estimated that, by late March, close to 80% of educators across the country had been vaccinated.

Children greatly outnumber adults in school; there are eight children for every adult in a school in Louisiana.

And even if teen vaccination rates dramatically increase in the weeks to come, only middle and elementary schools will benefit. Children under the age of 12 aren’t expected to be eligible to get vaccinated until this fall at earliest.

Dr. Seiter said schools deserve credit for their safety efforts this year, and she favors more in-person instruction. But she worries that schools could go too far in loosening restrictions.

“Masks have helped, they have helped tremendously,” she said. “It’s surprising these kids have worn the masks without much resistance.”

Seiter said keeping sick children out of school has also been a good practice. Not only has it helped prevent the spread of COVID, but it’s also limited the spread of other contagious diseases such as the seasonal flu, she said.

In that same vein, Dr. Seiter encourages schools to continue to offer robust virtual learning, so that families know that children can keep up with school while they are sick or are quarantining.

“I want them to be back in school, but to do so when they are well, and when they are sick to have that ability to not be so far behind because they had access to virtual learning,” she said.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.

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