The District had a relatively low youth compliance rate for routine immunizations even before the coronavirus pandemic made non-emergency visits to doctors less frequent — and the rates have only fallen since then. Seventy-seven percent of D.C. Public School students and 76 percent of charter students are current on their routine vaccinations, according to city data. That’s below the 93 percent student vaccination rate before the pandemic and far below the 95 percent that public health officials say is needed for herd immunity.
Now a coronavirus vaccine is available to students 12 and older, which could make in-person learning possible with fewer health restrictions. The question is whether the city can get enough families to take the vaccine and make it accessible to students across all wards of the District.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee recently told families that while a coronavirus vaccine is not required for students to attend school next year, he urged those eligible for the shots to get them.
“If you want to see students back in school, then it is our responsibility as a community for everyone to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to them,” Ferebee wrote in an email to families Friday.
Ferebee said the school system is working with health officials to use schools as coronavirus vaccination sites, but he did not say how or when that would happen. The city also used school buildings as clinics for routine immunizations during the pandemic. Teachers and principals have said in interviews this year that they have connected family with clinics near their homes where they can get immunizations so they can attend in-person school. According to school leaders, youth vaccination rates are improving.
Ambrose Lane Jr — founder of Health Alliance Network, which is focused on health disparities in Wards 7 and 8, mostly Black areas of the city with high concentrations of poverty — is one of many city leaders and activists thinking about how to educate students and their families about coronavirus vaccination.
“It’s hard to crack,” said Lane, who also co-founded the community group Black Coalition Against Covid. “Young people are likely to follow their parents, and if [the parents] are hesitant, then they are going to be hesitant.”
The city’s adult vaccination rate is already lopsided, with Black and Latino residents less likely than White residents to be vaccinated. While there is vaccine hesitancy, the city’s initial rollout of vaccines ended up favoring White and wealthy residents, and frustrated D.C. lawmakers said it reflected a historic lack of investment in public health care for low-income communities of color.
Coronavirus case numbers in the city are dropping, and Black residents still make up a disproportionate share of the cases.
Officials at Children’s National Hospital said that it had preregistered 6,000 12-to 15-year-olds to get a shot at the hospital or a clinic in Maryland ahead of Thursday, the first day that this age group was eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech shots. The hospital had focused outreach in Wards 7 and 8, but families in these wards made up a minority of families who signed up.
The stakes are high for schools to get coronavirus shots to as many students as possible: Under current city rules, people who are vaccinated do not need to quarantine if a close contact contracts the virus. If these vaccines disproportionately end up in the arms of children from wealthier families, the city risks having low-income students in classrooms fewer days in the fall since they would have to switch to virtual school and quarantine for 10 days if a close contact contracts the virus.
The D.C. Council recently passed a controversial law that allows children older than 12 to be vaccinated without parental consent.
Lane said city and health advocates need to decide whether to direct messages about coronavirus vaccination to children, to families, or a combination.
KIPP DC is planning a town hall for parents with medical experts who can explain why the government has deemed the vaccine safe for children. The charter network said it hosted a similar virtual town hall when vaccines became available for adults and had high attendance.
“We will focus on ensuring they have access to information and especially about locations given the historical lack of access to medical facilities in Ward 7 & 8,” Adam Rupe, spokesman for KIPP DC, wrote in an email. “The city has done a great job of expanding access, we just don’t know if all our families are aware of these new choices.”
D.C. Public Schools is working with Children’s National — which employs nurses who are assigned to public schools — to train school nurses to talk to students about the coronavirus shots.
Building these bridges of trust in the vaccine and the administration process will be critical, school leaders and city activists say.
Zulma Barrera, a mother of three, said she and her 16-year-old daughter waited to get the vaccine until Mary’s Center — a community health clinic whose patients are mostly immigrant families — was authorized to administer it. Barrera already received her first dose, and her daughter recently made an appointment for the Pfizer vaccine at Mary’s Center.
“I trust them; I was waiting for them,” Barrera said. “We need to cooperate to make sure everyone has the vaccine.”
On Friday, at a coronavirus vaccine clinic at R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center in Southeast Washington, some teenagers said they have been hearing about the vaccine from their teachers and friends at school. All said their parents were vaccinated, and they were confident they wanted the shots, too.
“My track coach suggested we get it so we can get back,” said 15-year-old Kimora Beal, a sophomore at Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington. “I say others should get it. It comes with a lot of pros.”
Kimora went back to school a few times this spring, but when someone at the school became infected, her mother, Tavara Johnson, decided to keep the teen home. Once Kimora is fully vaccinated, Johnson said, in-person school will be okay.
Jacque Patterson — at-large representative on the D.C. State Board of Education — accompanied his 12-year-old son to get the vaccine at the clinic. Patterson, who works at KIPP DC, said he wants to lead by example as he urges other families to be vaccinated.
“I’m pretty excited and nervous at the same time,” said Patterson’s son, Jacque Patterson Jr., a sixth-grader at Stuart-Hobson Middle School. “I get to protect myself and protect others. And I get to hang out with my grandpa.”