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D.C. schools expand covid vaccine mandate, unlike most other districts

Cayden Malone, 8, receives a coronavirus vaccine dose in 2021 at a walk-up vaccination site held at the Hillcrest Recreation Center in D.C. The city's public school system is requiring students age 12 and older to get vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend school in the fall. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

D.C. students who are 12 and older must be vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend school this upcoming academic year.

The youth vaccine mandate in D.C. is among the strictest in the nation, according to health experts, and is being enacted in a city with wide disparities in vaccination rates between its White and Black children. Overall, about 85 percent of students between the ages of 12 and 15 have been vaccinated against the virus, but the rate drops to 60 percent among Black children in this age range.

If the city does not close this gap but does strictly enforce the vaccine mandate this fall, students of color — who experienced disproportionately large academic setbacks during the pandemic — could be at home in significant numbers next academic year.

“Our goal is that no child should miss a single day of school,” Asad Bandealy, the chief of the D.C. Department of Health’s Health Care Access Bureau, said at a news conference this week at Mary’s Center, a community health clinic where children can be vaccinated. “And that means we need to get started now.”

School starts Aug. 29 in the D.C. system.

A quarter of D.C. kids are behind on routine vaccines, officials say

D.C. is one of few districts to make coronavirus vaccination a requirement for attending school. The mandate reflects, in part, the city’s unique education governance structure. The requirement came from the 13-member D.C. Council, not from a school board. And because D.C. is a federal district rather than a state, there is no state health agency with which the city can be in conflict.

Elsewhere in the country, the New Orleans public school system in February added the coronavirus vaccine to its list of required immunizations for children 5 years and older. The rest of the state was scheduled to do the same for the upcoming school year, but changed course in May because the vaccines did not yet have full approval from the Food and Drug Administration for children under 16. Full approval for the vaccine for ages 12 to 15 was granted in early July.

Some of the country’s largest school districts are encouraging but not mandating that children be vaccinated. Students in New York City public schools must be vaccinated against the coronavirus only if they plan to participate in certain sports, musical theater or other activities the district deems to be “high-risk.” Los Angeles Unified School District delayed a mandate that was to take effect in the fall, pointing to the vaccination rates among older students and what the district’s superintendent said had been low transmission in schools. About 78 percent of students age 12 and above in the Los Angeles district were fully vaccinated before the end of the school year in May, according to media reports.

Meanwhile, just 31 percent of children nationwide between the ages of 5 and 11 have been fully vaccinated. Anne Liu, an infectious-diseases doctor and clinical associate professor at Stanford University, said public health officials want that number to increase.

“I think it is to the benefit of the children and teachers and staff in the schools, and the rest of the city,” Liu said about the coronavirus vaccine requirement in D.C., adding that such mandates are a “positive thing to work towards.”

Still, D.C. has a long-standing reputation of failing to enforce its immunization requirements in schools. But officials say that this year will be different and that they have an urgent plan to get students their shots this summer. They are mailing fliers, placing ads at bus stations, sending out mobile vaccine vans to communities and calling thousands of parents whose children’s vaccinations are out of date. Health clinics are opening up hundreds more appointments each weeks for youth vaccinations.

Why some parents are skeptical about covid vaccines for young children

In addition to coronavirus vaccines, students must receive their routine immunizations — including for measles, polio and whooping cough — to enroll in school. Students have 20 days from the first day of school to be in compliance with vaccine requirements before they are barred from attendance. Schools should have data showing which students have been vaccinated to encourage families with unvaccinated students to get their shots if they show up to the first day of school without them.

Because the FDA has fully authorized the coronavirus vaccine for children 12 to 15 years old this summer, students in this age group have until around the end of September to get that vaccine, according to city law. Children under 12 are not required to get the coronavirus vaccine because the shots for this age group have received only emergency-use authorization.

Many students missed routine doctor appointments during the pandemic, and local officials estimate that a quarter of students are out of date with their vaccines.

Bandealy, the D.C. health official, said that high-schoolers have the highest out-of-compliance rates.

He noted, though, that the D.C. data may not reflect the vaccination status of students who received shots in Maryland or Virginia.

D.C.’s youth vaccine mandate has been nearly a year in the making. In October, the D.C. Council introduced legislation calling for the coronavirus vaccine to be on the list of vaccines required for enrollment in school.

The law stipulates that the mandate goes into effect only when the shot has received full FDA authorization. Once that happens, students have 70 days to get the coronavirus vaccine to remain in school. For all vaccines, students can seek religious and medical exemptions.

In the Washington metro area, D.C. is unique in its student mandate. Montgomery County Public Schools — Maryland’s largest school district, with roughly 160,000 students — has no coronavirus vaccination requirement for students. Under a policy set by the board of education, school district employees are required to submit proof of vaccination or be tested weekly.

Prince George’s County Public Schools, also in Maryland, has no coronavirus vaccination requirement for staffers or students but did require and provide weekly testing for unvaccinated staffers at the height of the pandemic.

In other areas of school life, the D.C. system has been more stringent on covid protocols in comparison with other regional school systems. The school district retained a mask mandate as other school systems dropped theirs. Prince George’s dropped its mask mandate July 1 and plans to begin the school year with a mask-optional policy.

Among Northern Virginia’s school systems, staff vaccinations against the coronavirus are required in Alexandria City and Arlington public schools. The school districts in Fairfax and Loudoun counties are not mandating employee vaccination.

Hannah Natanson and Nicole Asbury contributed to this report.

The pandemic’s impact on education

The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5. To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools. American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure.

Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules.

DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.