With vaccinations of Louisiana school employees well under way, the next step is to vaccinate the children they educate. That process, however, will likely take longer and could spark more controversy.
Despite arguably having the legal authority to do so, K-12 schools in the state have avoided requiring their employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations, opting instead for voluntary persuasion. And mandatory vaccinations for schoolchildren against the coronavirus are also not in the cards — at least not for a while yet.
The Legislature would have to add the vaccine to its list of required vaccinations for diseases such as polio, measles, and tetanus. Lawmakers are unlikely to even consider such a move until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives COVID vaccines full approval -- they are currently being distributed under emergency approval -- and until those vaccines are authorized to be given to children.
Beyond that, backlash to the vaccine is already strong in some corners of Louisiana. Indeed, the Legislature will take up at least one bill in the session starting Monday that would make public and private organizations liable for any affects of the vaccine if they make it mandatory. And another bill would allow anyone to refuse to get a vaccine.
Several school leaders interviewed by The Advocate said they haven’t heard any talk of mandating the vaccines and doubt it will come to that.
“I really don’t think it will become required,” said Wes Watts, superintendent of West Baton Rouge Parish schools.
“I don’t feel like it should be mandatory,” said Scott Devillier, superintendent of Zachary schools.
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While they haven’t mandated employee vaccinations, schools have done a number of things to make it easier for educators to get vaccinated. They include releasing them from class, bringing nurses to school campuses, organizing special vaccination events and issuing regular advisories about opportunities to get shots.
Any such plans for schoolchildren are in their infancy.
“We haven’t had extensive conversations about this and will await guidance (from state agencies),” said Jackie Tisdell, a spokeswoman for Ascension Parish schools.
“It’s not been on my radar,” said Jason Fountain, superintendent of the Central school district. “We’ve not had discussions about kid vaccinations at all.”
So far, less than 6,000 of Louisiana’s 1.1 million children have begun their vaccinations and none have completed them, according to the most recent numbers. They are all 16 or 17 years olds who have received the Pfizer vaccine. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots are authorized only for those 18 years old and older.
That is likely to change soon.
Pfizer this past week asked the federal government to allow vaccinations for 12 to 15 years olds after a trial showed the vaccine to be 100% effective for children in that age range. Federal officials are saying Pfizer could get what it wants as early as mid-May, with Moderna potentially following not far behind.
A vaccine for children younger than 12, however, is not expected to be approved before the end of the year.
Dr. Leron Finger, chief experience officer with Children’s Hospital New Orleans, has worked closely with schools throughout the pandemic. He expects vaccinations for teenagers to kick into high gear this summer before the start of the 2021-22 school year.
Finger said schools don’t have to be the “primary messengers” for student vaccination. He advocates instead to rely on trusted members of the community to persuade teenagers and their families to get their shots.
“It will be a grassroots effort on a local level,” Dr. Finger said. “If their local pediatrician, or pastor or coach says to get it, I think they are far more likely to get it.”
Coaches, in particular, will be crucial, he said. One big incentive is that fully vaccinated athletes won’t have to be quarantined — quarantines forced the postponing and cancelation of many school sporting events this past year.
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Finger said the vaccines currently in use are among the best in medical history and he expects that they will eventually be required for schoolchildren But it will take awhile for the evidence to pile up.
“I think the science will determine the timing,” he said. “I don’t think I can control the pushback (against the vaccine), but just be ready for it when it happens and be ready to have those conversations with people, not bullying them to get vaccinated."
He said that teenagers, particularly 16 and 17 year olds, should be the focus of initial vaccination outreach because they are more likely to spread the disease and get sick than younger children. But he said that for Louisiana to reach herd immunity, which he estimated as between 80 and 90% of its residents vaccinated, children of all ages will need to get their shots.
“We need to get everyone across all age groups vaccinated,” he said.
Finger said Louisiana has made great strides already, but people need to continue wearing masks and taking other precautions, at least for a bit longer. If that happens, schools can begin returning to pre-pandemic norms.
“I am cautiously optimistic that the next academic year will look different, but we will need people .. a lot depends on how the community continues to act,” Finger said.