The COVID-19 Vaccine in Schools: Frequently Asked Questions

Covid Vaccine Hero

Vaccinating educators against COVID-19 is a critical step toward reopening schools for in-person instruction. But the process is tricky, especially since states are all handling vaccine rollouts differently. The Biden administration issued a plan on January 21 to give some guidance, speed up vaccination efforts, and provide funds needed to get the job done. Only time will tell whether or not the plan will prove effective.

In the meantime, we at Shaped did some digging to get answers to frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 vaccine and its impact on schools. We spoke with Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a member of the FDA advisory panel that approved emergency use of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines, along with Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association (AASA). Here’s what they had to say.

When can teachers get the COVID vaccine?

Rollout procedures vary across the country. In Virginia and New York, for example, teachers fall into the Phase 1B classification of vaccine eligibility—near the top of the list, behind frontline health care workers and nursing home residents. But other states, Florida and Texas for instance, have not determined when teachers will be vaccinated.

“We were happy to see that many states did put teachers in that higher priority, and indeed, in many states, teachers are already being vaccinated,” Domenech (AASA) says.

“But there are other states that have not put teachers on that higher priority, and that’s going to be a problem in those areas,” Domenech adds. “As we move into the second semester of the school year, to meet that goal of reopening schools is going to be difficult if the rollout isn’t there as it should be and if teachers are not being vaccinated.”

Note that state vaccination plans are updated often and may change in response to additional Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and federal government guidance. Check your state’s health department website for more information.

Is anything being done to smooth the nationwide rollout?

Domenech expressed hope that the new presidential administration would provide some much-needed guidance for schools and districts across the country. On January 21, President Joe Biden issued a plan to reopen schools that includes speeding up vaccinations and providing additional funding to put safety precautions like screen testing in place. A new COVID-19 response team “will work to ensure that testing materials, support for contact tracing, and vaccinations for teachers are equitably provided to support in-person care and learning," according to the administration.

Are administrators and other school staff also a priority in the vaccine rollout?

The states prioritizing educators in the vaccine rollout are generally doing the same for administrators and other school staff, who frequently come in contact with students, Domenech says. This includes bus drivers, custodians, teacher aides, and food service workers.

Why are educators and school staff considered “high priority” in the vaccine rollout in many states?

Educators should receive priority access “because of the importance of safe, equitable, and effective in-person instruction and support,” according to a statement from the National Education Association (NEA). “There is no replacement for the in-person connection between our students and their educators,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in a statement.

The NEA also cites teachers’ role in bringing nutrition, instructional materials, and remote instruction to students during these challenging times.

Domenech Headshot

“To meet that goal of reopening schools is going to be difficult if the rollout isn’t there as it should be.”

Dan Domenech Executive Director, School Superintendents Association (AASA)

Can school districts require teachers and other staff to get the vaccine?

“That’s a whole legal issue that has yet to be defined,” Domenech says. “I think it could be done, but it could be problematic.”

Dr. Offit (FDA panel) agrees that a vaccination mandate could be tricky. “It’s not a licensed product, so I’m not sure you could require it, but I certainly think it is to the advantage of teachers and their students to get this vaccine [when it's available]. There’s no good reason not to get it.”

Can schools refuse to let an educator teach in person until they get the vaccine?

While districts might face an uphill battle in requiring the vaccine, they could bar unvaccinated teachers from the classroom, according to Domenech. “They could say, ‘In order to be in the classroom and teach, you have to be vaccinated. If you're not willing to be vaccinated, you’ll have to do remote learning.’”

Will students be required to get the vaccine in order to attend school?

The vaccine is currently unavailable to children under 16 years old, and Domenech says it’s not yet known whether they will be required to get vaccinated to return to the classroom.

Dr. Offit concurs, noting that the vaccine for kids is still being tested. A safe dosage has yet to be determined. It’s possible kids will be able to get vaccinated by the beginning of the next school year, he says.

What percentage of teachers, students, and staff would need to get vaccinated for schools to fully reopen in the fall?

In order for us to reach “herd immunity”—when most of a population is immune to an infectious disease—about 80% of the entire U.S. population needs to be vaccinated, Dr. Offit says. He estimates this will happen by the end of the summer, but it’s too early to say for sure.

When it comes to the percentage of educators, students, and staff that would be needed to reopen schools, Domenech says he hopes the Biden administration will collaborate with the CDC to find a clear answer.

“The CDC is finally at liberty to actually use their scientists to come up with those metrics that districts are so looking forward to, because right now it’s all over the place,” he says, referring to the fact that there haven’t been national guidelines developed on this front.

To make these calculations, Domenech says he expects that the U.S. Department of Education will require districts to submit information regarding infection rates in schools and the surrounding communities.

Do we know what the 2021–2022 school year—or even the rest of the spring semester—will look like?

President Joe Biden has pledged to reopen schools safely in his first 100 days of office. On January 21, he signed several executive orders aimed at achieving that goal.

For his part, Domenech hopes schools might open in September if infection rates are way down. He predicts that districts will prioritize bringing younger students back to the classroom first. That’s because older students are better able to handle remote learning, and the COVID-19 infection rate is higher for them, Domenech says.

Offit Headshot

“I certainly think it is to the advantage of teachers and their students to get this vaccine [when it's available].”

Dr. Paul Offit Director, Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Where can educators and school staff get vaccinated?

This varies from state to state, Domenech says—in some cases vaccines are being given at vaccination sites and other medical facilities. If mass vaccinations for school staff occur in the future, the easiest place for it would be in schools themselves, Dr. Offit explains. But there’s a big caveat.

“They would have to be able to handle the vaccines,” he says. “Some have to be handled at −70 or −80 degrees. Thawed vaccines can only be stored for five days. Once reconstituted [mixed with a fluid so it can be injected], they have to be given out over a six-hour period. All of that would have to be taken into account.”

Is the vaccine safe?

After more than 10 months of testing and sequencing, “you have two large clinical trials showing the vaccine is effective and it works,” Dr. Offit says. Its safety has been further illustrated by an “overwhelming amount of data,” he adds. “People should be convinced by the data.” The benefits outweigh what he calls “theoretical risks.”

But the vaccine was developed quickly. Should people, including educators, be skeptical?

"There’s a reason the vaccine was developed so fast—we spent money,” Dr. Offit says.

Under the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed, the government put hundreds of millions of dollars into the effort to develop the vaccine, eliminating the risk for pharmaceutical companies, according to Dr. Offit. “The government paid for the production not knowing whether the vaccine worked, not knowing whether it was safe, and that’s why it was so fast.”

How does the COVID vaccine work?

“It involves a small piece of messenger RNA, which is the gene that codes for one of the coronavirus spike proteins which enters our cells,” Dr. Offit explains. “Our bodies make the spike protein and then antibodies to the spike protein.” This differs from vaccines for illnesses like the measles or mumps, where you’re inoculated with a live, weakened form of the virus.

It’s not yet known how long people will be protected against COVID once they get the vaccine, Dr. Offit says. But assuming the virus doesn’t mutate away from the vaccine, he guesses a few years—though only time will tell.

Should people worry about having reactions to the vaccine?

The symptoms that can follow vaccinations—fatigue, fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, joint pains—that’s our immune response being activated. Allergic reactions, according to the CDC, occur in 11 per million doses. That’s why people have to stay around for 15 minutes after the vaccination if they’ve never had an allergic reaction to anything before, and 30 minutes if they’ve had an allergic reaction in the past. The site would have epinephrine (medication that narrows blood vessels and opens airways in the lungs) to give to those who have severe reactions, says Dr. Offit.

What role should school and district leaders play in the rollout of the vaccine for educators and school staff?

While administrators are, in many instances, already communicating with staff about the importance of getting the vaccine, the problem they face is a “lack of clear guidance” at the federal level, Domenech says.

“The lack of guidance at a broad-scale basis has hurt us tremendously and will continue to hurt us until there are national standards that states can adhere to and districts can adhere to,” he says.

The hope, Domenech says, is that the Biden administration’s plan will provide a path forward. Still, many superintendents are already encouraging staff to get the vaccine if possible.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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Teach your students about the spread of infectious disease with these lab activities and lesson plan ideas from author Michael DiSpezio.

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