The District outlined an urgent plan this week to vaccinate nearly 30,000 students — more than 25 percent of the public and private school population — who are behind on their routine shots over the summer so that they can legally attend school in August.
According to city data, around 75 percent of public school students are current with their routine vaccines, with students in the wealthiest wards having the highest compliance rates. If the city outreach efforts to vaccinate students are ineffective, scores of students — likely a disproportionate number of low-income students of color — would be kept at home during a school year where students are already expected to still be recovering from the academic fallouts from the pandemic.
“What we do not want to see is an outbreak of other preventable diseases while we are trying to catch up,” Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) said at a D.C. Council session Wednesday on youth vaccinations. “I am alarmed that we have such a high rate of noncompliance on such routine vaccinations.”
Private and parochial schools, according to the data collected by health officials, have lower compliance rates than public schools. Health officials warned that some data from students who received their vaccines at places outside of the District may be missing from the current count.
Amy McNamer, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, which supports 76 private schools in the region, said in an email that she believes most of the schools in her network are fully in compliance with the vaccine mandate and the low numbers are likely a reflection of records not properly being submitted to DC Health, not unvaccinated children. She said leaders at schools that are not in full compliance told her that they needed to update their records.
City officials testified at the hearing that their plans to vaccinate students would center on educating families about the efficacy and safety of vaccines and creating convenient ways for families to get the shots.
D.C. Health official Asad Bandealy said the city would be issuing robocalls to the families of children who are out of date on their vaccines. And staff would personally call about 6,000 families, with a focus on those with 4- to 6-year-olds. Children in this age group have the most new vaccine requirements and many enrolled in primary schools during the height of the pandemic — a time when families were less likely to go to routine doctor appointments.
The city says it will establish vaccine clinics at seven schools over the summer. Families, regardless of whether their children attend the school, can walk in and get vaccines. Officials will also send mobile vaccine clinics run by Children’s National Hospital to more than 40 schools with the lowest vaccination rates. And, officials said, they will expand access to a web platform that allows schools to request hosting a vaccine clinic at their schools.
“D. C. Health has already begun reaching out by phone and mail to all families currently out of compliance,” Bandealy said. “We anticipate calling as many as 29,000 families through August 2022.”
School vaccine mandates have been around for more than a century, according to D.C. Health, and mandates are common across the country.
The D.C. Council passed legislation last year to require students to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, but that will only go into effect for all students once the Food and Drug Administration gives full approval for a vaccine. For children ages 5 to 15, a vaccine has only received emergency authorization, not full approval. Still, officials said, students will be able to get coronavirus vaccines at the school-based sites where they get their routine immunizations. In D.C., most children between the ages of 5 and 11 have not received their coronavirus vaccines, with Black and Hispanic children far less likely to be vaccinated than White children.
Bowser already implemented a coronavirus vaccine mandate for students participating in school-based sports and other extracurriculars last year. That mandate did keep some students out of these activities.
Brittany Wade, a District mother of five children — four of whom are home-schooled — said her high school-aged daughter wanted to participate in extracurriculars at her neighborhood high school, something that home-schooled students are permitted to do. But she wasn’t allowed to because she did not have the coronavirus vaccine.
Wade said her children have received their routine vaccinations and she would consider the coronavirus vaccine for them once it receives full FDA approval. Still, she thinks it should be up to the family.
“This is a personal choice that a family makes,” she said. “Why are you penalizing them for it?”
Students have 20 days from the first day of school to be in compliance with vaccine requirements before they are kicked out. Schools should have data showing which students are vaccinated to encourage families with unvaccinated students to get their shots if they show up to the first day of school without them.
Under D.C. law, students will have 70 days to get the coronavirus vaccine and remain in school after it receives full FDA authorization. For all vaccines, students can apply for religious and medical exemptions from the requirement.
In public health, a population has herd immunity against a virus once 95 percent of the population is vaccinated. But D.C. schools struggled to reach this threshold even before the pandemic. Much of that has been due to vaccine hesitancy and misinformation about the immunizations and school requirements.
But the challenges became even harder during the pandemic as families skipped doctors appointments for fear of contracting covid-19, and most students were virtual for the entire 2020-2021 school year. Routine vaccine rates plummeted and city officials conceded that they did not enforce the law requiring students to be vaccinated to attend school.
One charter school leader at the hearing questioned whether the student vaccination data was reliable, noting that many of his students have been marked as unvaccinated even though they are vaccinated.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) asked why school nurses couldn’t administer the vaccines to their students in school nursing suites. Health officials said that they are already stretched thin, responsible for treating students who may need medication for asthma, diabetes and other chronic and acute illnesses.
“Maybe the bureaucracy and red tape has to take second fiddle to getting this job done,” Mendelson said.
Gregory Spears, principal at Friendship Blow Pierce Elementary and Middle charter school in Northeast Washington, testified that while his team would work to ensure his students get vaccinated, he was worried about creating another barrier for students to learn. He said many students at his school have many obstacles to attending school each day, and he was worried about what would happen if he had to send students home if they were unvaccinated.
Spears called on the city to give families longer than 20 days from the start of school to get their required shots.
“We cannot erect additional barriers to success for our most vulnerable students,” he said.