Students who could show they were vaccinated were reportedly marked with a red Sharpie, while attendees who were unvaccinated or unable to provide their vaccine cards were labeled with a number in a black Sharpie. The effort was part of the school’s contact tracing plan to allow all students to attend the June 4 prom, regardless of their vaccination status.
But the school, which reported no coronavirus cases from the prom, has faced blowback in recent days after a Republican state legislator shared concern from some parents who were allegedly incensed over their children being singled out as unvaccinated. State Rep. Melissa Litchfield (R) noted on Facebook that parents called the decision “beyond tolerable” and likened the students having their hands marked as part of contact tracing as treatment comparable to “prisoners in Nazi Germany.”
“You had to produce your papers, and if you didn’t produce your papers, you were branded with a black Sharpie,” Litchfield said to WBTS. “What does that mean to you?”
New Hampshire School Administrative Unit 16 Superintendent David Ryan said in a statement that the school district is conducting an internal audit of the contact tracing program. Exeter High School Principal Mike Monahan said that while feedback from prom was “extremely positive,” he was aware of the criticism from parents about teens having their privacy violated because of what color marker they had on their hands.
“We made every effort possible — while adhering to contact tracing guidelines — to ensure that this did not happen,” Monahan said in a statement. “We hope the community will understand that while no model is perfect, this model let the students enjoy a close to normal and highly desired experience to cap off their senior year. That’s the memory we want to leave them with.”
The pushback among some parents in New Hampshire comes as schools nationwide conclude an academic year riddled with questions surrounding in-person learning, masks and socially distancing. After the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine was authorized for children as young as 12 last month, the attention has now shifted to vaccination status and whether states could require schools and districts to mandate shots for students in the fall. Nearly 17 million adolescents in the United States are now eligible to receive a shot.
Some school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, have indicated plans to require students to receive the vaccine. But only 56 percent of Americans polled are in favor of requiring high school students to be vaccinated by the fall, according to a Gallup poll published Friday. Some schools, like Centner Academy, a private institution in Miami, have gone to extreme measures in opposing the vaccine, citing debunked misinformation and telling its teachers in April to either not get a vaccine or don’t expect to be welcomed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that about 23 percent of youths between 12 and 15 have received a Pfizer shot, according to the Wall Street Journal. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky recently urged parents to vaccinate their teenagers, citing the increased hospitalization rates of teens with covid-19 in March and April.
More than 53 percent of New Hampshire’s vaccine eligible population, or about 723,000 people, are fully vaccinated, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. The state’s mask mandate expired in April and Gov. Chris Sununu (R) lifted coronavirus restrictions on businesses last month.
The drop in new cases coupled with the availability of the vaccine in the area helped make in-person prom in Exeter, N.H., about 50 miles north of Boston, a reality, school officials said. Exeter High School students were asked to maintain social distancing when they weren’t dancing, and they were also expected to spread out on the three separate dance floors. Students were also asked to raise their hands after every few songs to help record out who was standing by who at a given time, reported WMUR.
After acknowledging it would be impossible to have all those in attendance be fully vaccinated, school officials said that students were notified of the contact tracing program as they registered for prom.
“EHS Students are strongly encouraged to share their vaccination cards after their second vaccination with the EHS Health Office,” the school said on the website.
Students who were unable to provide a vaccination card because they had not completed the full vaccination process or did not have a card were required to have a number written on their hand, the school said. Prom photos published by the Portsmouth Herald show at least a couple of students appearing to have black marks on their hands.
“No contact tracing system is perfect for crowds this large and not all students could be traced in a prom environment,” the school district said in a statement. “However, without a contact tracing system, all attendees would have had to be quarantined if there was a positive case tied back to the event.”
In the days following prom, Litchfield, a chair of a school board in the same district as Exeter High, said more than a dozen parents reached out to voice their displeasure over the school marking children in a Sharpie to identify them as not fully vaccinated. The Republican lawmaker, who was not at the prom, shared on Facebook some of the lines she claimed she received from disgruntled parents.
“They have no business asking for a vaccine card.”
“I find it absolutely unbelievable that [the school] was allowed to treat the kids like prisoners in Nazi Germany.”
“This should NEVER been allowed.”
Litchfield told WBTS that she posted about the comments she received from parents because some families were “afraid to speak up and they needed a voice and I understand.”
Monahan, the principal, rebuked the alleged concerns from some parents about not being aware of the contact tracing program, saying there was a dedicated dance website with the information listed. A statement from the school district noted that a set of cards listing the vaccination status of the students would be “destroyed.”
“There will be no unique identifiers that can be tied back to students who were unable to show proof of vaccination,” the district said.
At the school’s graduation Saturday, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) sent off the seniors with a commencement address reflecting on all of the covid challenges the teens had gone through: “Do not forget this pandemic and what we learned in the process.”