School vaccine mandates for Covid-19 are not happening

Originally published in Vox on August 8, 2022.

For the third summer in a row, school leaders are facing the question of what — if anything — they’re going to do to stop the spread of Covid-19 when students return to classrooms.

One thing is clear: Almost none of them will be requiring vaccines.

Just 31 percent of children between 5 and 11 in the US have been fully vaccinated, and 61 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have been. (Only about 3 percent of children under 5 had received a first dose by July 20.)

Still, no state in the country is planning to require student vaccinations, a marked turnaround from where things seemed to be headed last winter, when multiple states and school districts suggested vaccine mandates were coming soon. Only Washington, DC, has announced a mandatory school vaccine policy this fall, for students 12 and older.

Other mitigation measures — from masks to ventilation — may also be on their way out. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will likely soon recommend easing school testing, quarantine, and social distancing requirements, CNN reported last week. (Many schools often disregarded CDC guidelines, but the update is a sign of how expectations have shifted.)

Burbio, a company that specializes in aggregating school calendars, reported that so far, the vast majority of school districts it tracks nationwide will not be requiring masks this fall. And a June CDC study found just under 40 percent of American public schools had replaced or upgraded their HVAC systems to provide improved ventilation.

For the last three years, school requirements — closed or open? masks on or off? — have been a battleground in the culture war over Covid-19. Fear of wading back into the polarized fights over vaccination is one reason school leaders have backed away from requiring the shots. So is the fact that vaccines for children under 12 are not yet fully approved by the FDA.

But an even bigger factor might be mass indifference: American adults are more hesitant to vaccinate their kids, especially younger kids, than they were to get shots themselves. And no influential health group or federal agency is pushing states to require them to do so.

How California backtracked on vaccine mandates

In October 2021, California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom was the first in the nation to announce a planned Covid-19 vaccine mandate for K-12 students once the FDA had fully approved the shots. He said at the time that it could take effect as early as January.

Some school districts in the state tried to impose vaccine mandates that would take effect even earlier. Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation, announced in September 2021 that students 12 and older must be fully vaccinated by December 19, or switch to online schooling. In Oakland, California, the school board passed a similar vaccine requirement in late September for eligible students, with a deadline of January 1. The Pfizer vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds had been fully approved in August, while the shots for 12- to 15-year-olds were still under FDA’s emergency use authorization.

By December 2021, facing both political and legal pressure, school leaders pushed back the vaccine mandates to the start of the 2022-23 school year. LAUSD board president Kelly Gonez has said their decision was “not about conceding to a vocal minority of anti-vaxxers,” although those who oppose mandatory Covid vaccines hailed the delay as a victory.

But as 2022 continued, pressure for youth Covid-19 vaccines declined. A state lawmaker in California who had introduced a bill to require Covid-19 vaccines for K-12 students withdrew it in April, saying that focus needed to be on ensuring access to the vaccine. The same week, the California Department of Public Health announced it would no longer add the Covid-19 vaccine to its list of mandated childhood vaccines for public schools because they had not all yet received full FDA approval. The earliest the requirement would take effect, they said, was July 2023. Individual school districts like Los Angeles followed suit.

A California health department spokesperson told Vox that the state was waiting “to ensure sufficient time for successful implementation of new vaccine requirements.” As of last month, the vaccines are now fully approved for ages 12 and up, but not yet for younger children. The California health agency also said even after all the shots receive full approval, officials would still take into consideration other health group recommendations before issuing a new mandate.

Louisiana, likewise, retreated on a student vaccine mandate Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards announced last November. New Orleans Public Schools is the only district in the state to require students to be vaccinated against Covid-19, though policy enforcement has been mixed. New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who said in January he was considering a student vaccine mandate for the fall, quietly dropped the idea, scaling it back to a requirement for students participating in certain sports and other “high-risk” extracurriculars like choir.

Why districts have been loath to require Covid vaccines for students

The California situation illustrates the several factors at play in schools’ reluctance to require vaccines.

One issue is the lack of full FDA approval for vaccines for younger children. The US Supreme Court has endorsed states’ authority to require student vaccines, but many policymakers were wary of testing that legal authority for Covid-19 shots that had only received emergency use authorization. (The Justice Department issued a memo last summer saying schools could legally do this, but the threat of defending those decisions in court was both real and unappealing.)

As a result, even once youth vaccines became available, leaders hesitated to require them without full FDA approval. But now the FDA has fully approved vaccines for teens and adolescents, and that still hasn’t led states or districts to require the shots for older kids.

Policymakers are also wrestling with the fact that the virus is much less deadly for children compared to adults. (Approximately 1,180 of the more than 1 million Americans who have died of the virus were 17 or younger, though health experts stress vaccination can still help protect against these rare outcomes.) Kids can also catch the virus in school and spread it back at home to their more vulnerable parents and grandparents, but that risk became easier to tolerate once adult vaccines were approved.

Most school districts were wary of igniting another public school culture war battle at a time when students were still struggling to regain academic and social skills lost during the pandemic. On the eve of the anniversary of the January 6 riot, former President Donald Trump blasted President Joe Biden for supposed “talk” that his administration might enforce a vaccine mandate for school children and urged “MAGA nation” to rise up against any such requirements. (The Biden administration has not publicly discussed any student vaccine mandate.)

Conservative law firms were also helping to mount legal challenges against proposed Covid-19 vaccine requirements, and groups fighting mask and vaccine mandates have insisted there is no reason to vaccinate kids to protect more vulnerable populations.

Polling also indicated that many parents were not eager to have their kids get the shots, and administrators felt hesitant to impose any rules that could keep vulnerable students — particularly Black and Latino students — out of in-person learning for even longer than they already endured.

The Covid-19 Vaccine Monitor, run by the Kaiser Family Foundation, reported recently that parents’ intentions to vaccinate their older children have remained relatively steady since the start of the year: About six in 10 parents of those aged 12-17 say their child has been vaccinated (57 percent); about 30 percent say they will definitely not get their teen vaccinated. Eight percent said they will only vaccinate their child if required.

Covid vaccination uptake is even lower among children ages 5-11, and nearly half of parents of that age group either say they will only get them vaccinated if required to do so (10 percent) or say they definitely won’t (37 percent).

While all demographic groups in the KFF study expressed concerns about long-term effects and side effects, Black and Hispanic parents also voiced more concerns over the logistics of getting their kids vaccinated.

Jeremy Singer, an education policy researcher who has been studying Covid-19 school reopenings, said it’s notable that resistance to youth Covid-19 vaccine requirements is present in nearly all school districts. One reason why, he said, may be what school districts are hearing from parents and community members.

“District leaders may still be feeling risk-averse, but at this point the ‘riskier’ thing for them could be to impose an unpopular mandate,” he said.

In January 2022, Singer and his colleagues surveyed Detroit parents on whether they supported or opposed various health measures. “Parents expressed overwhelming support for almost every measure … except vaccine mandates for staff and especially students, for which there was a lot more ambivalence,” he said of their findings, which are not yet published.

National groups and federal agencies aren’t pushing for vaccine mandates

Back in February, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote in a letter to schools, “The #1 tool we have available right now to make sure our schools remain safe and open for all students is vaccination,” and encouraged schools to provide information and host clinics. But the department has stopped short of encouraging schools to require the shots. Elaine Quesinberry, a spokesperson for the Education Department, referred Vox’s questions about student Covid-19 vaccines to the CDC, and the CDC did not return a request for comment.

The CDC’s last updated schools guidance, posted in late May, does not recommend schools require the shot, though encourages schools doing targeted outreach to promote it. A White House spokesperson declined earlier this year to say if Biden would support schools requiring Covid-19 vaccines for students if the vaccines had received full FDA approval.

Susan Martin, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, referred Vox to their policy statement recommending Covid-19 vaccines for all eligible children, and their interim guidance on safe schools, which says Covid vaccination and boosters should be encouraged.

Even teacher unions — which were influential in shaping school reopening decisions in the 2020-21 school year — have not staked out youth vaccination as a dealbreaker for safe in-person learning. An NEA spokesperson said, “Our position on vaccines have not been changed or updated at this point” and referred Vox to a position statement published in December 2020, which said parents should follow vaccine guidelines from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Back in October 2021, the last time the American Federation of Teachers released a formal statement on youth vaccines, president Randi Weingarten said “vaccine approval will be critical to keeping our kids safe and healthy, and making sure our schools stay open and remain safe and welcoming for all.” In a statement to Vox, Weingarten said the group is awaiting “full authorization by the FDA to inform requirements for kids — but in the meantime we must ensure the other guardrails, including revamped ventilation, are in place.”

Washington, DC, is moving forward with its student vaccine requirement

The big exception is in the nation’s capital. In late December, Washington, DC, councilmembers voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation requiring all eligible students to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

The bill set a vaccination deadline for March 1, 2022, though enforcement was delayed until the start of the 2022-23 school year, a concession to help keep students in school. At the time, just over 60 percent of DC young people ages 12-17 had received their two shots.

Last month the city announced it would move forward with its back-to-school vaccination policy, requiring Covid-19 vaccines for all students ages 12 and older within the first 20 school days. DC is also ramping up outreach and enforcement for its other required youth vaccinations — like measles and mumps — which the city didn’t enforce strictly last year, and students fell behind on.

“I think one thing that is important to know in terms of how DC is moving forward is we’re not just talking about the Covid vaccination, we are having a conversation about routine child immunization, and the Covid vaccine just happens to be a part of the series where kids need to get caught up,” said Christina Henderson, a DC councilmember and the lead sponsor of the bill requiring Covid-19 vaccines for students.

Henderson said their effort this year involves more concerted help from pediatricians, school leaders, and public health officials, to stress the importance of vaccination and to relay the evidence that millions of young people by now have safely received the shots.

Henderson pointed to the recent case of an unvaccinated 20-year-old with polio, and stressed that this is not the time to waver on the importance of pediatric vaccination. “We also know mandates work,” she added, noting that while many teen athletes were initially ambivalent about getting vaccinated, following DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s vaccination requirement to participate in sports last September, even hesitant students got their shots.

The Washington Post reported in late July that about 85 percent of DC students ages 12-15 have been vaccinated against Covid-19, but just 60 percent of Black children in that age range have been.

“If one school has a high unvaccinated rate of students, then we will bring a mobile vaccine clinic there,” Henderson said. “We are not going to assume that parents are purposely saying ‘I don’t want to get my child covered.’ It might just be they were away all summer and didn’t know about it, or didn’t have time.”

Kathryn Lynch-Morin, a spokesperson for DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, told Vox that city agencies have been coordinating closely with schools to support them with technical assistance, guidance, and outreach to families.

“Our children belong in school with their friends and teachers who care about them,” she said. “But, we know if an outbreak of one of these serious or deadly diseases were to occur, it could have a harmful impact on our children, families, and staff. We also know that vaccinations save lives.”

Building Trades Union Imposes Vaccine Mandate on Itself

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 25, 2021.
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As the country continues to wrestle with efforts to increase vaccination rates, an international building trades union took the rare step on Wednesday of stating clear support for vaccination mandates for its staff, its national collective-bargaining unions, and its affiliated local unions.

The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), which represents 140,000 active and retired craftspeople in the U.S. and Canada, issued a statement urging the labor movement to “lead by example.” It goes further than other unions, which have generally stated that any vaccine requirement should be negotiated first at the bargaining table.

“We’re not looking for anything at the bargaining table, and we’re not looking at our support in return for something else,” said incoming IUPAT General President Jim Williams Jr. “We feel COVID is a true health and safety risk on the job site, and if the employers mandate it, we want to be supportive. There’s a ton of mandates that employers already put out for health and safety.”

Williams said his union lost 65 members to COVID-19 last year. “What we in unionized construction pride ourselves in is being the safest workforce in the industry,” he told the Prospect. “We’d be crazy to think that we’re promoting health and safety by not having our workforce vaccinated at this point.”

The IUPAT’s new stance will take shape in three ways. Beginning October 15, the international union will require all of its own non–bargaining unit office and field employees to show proof of vaccination. Given this new policy, their statement reads, “it is only reasonable that they apply the same approach to the interpretation of their national collective bargaining agreements.” In practice, this means that for the roughly 150 employers across the country who have agreements with the IUPAT, the international union is declaring that any employer vaccine mandate will be considered “consistent” with their contracts as currently written, and no grievances will be filed to contest such a requirement.

Lastly, the IUPAT is providing guidance to its local affiliates (known as “district councils”), which likely have the right to demand bargaining over vaccine mandates. “The IUPAT expects that each District Council facing this issue will consider the facts on the ground in their jurisdiction—trends in infection rates as well as local or state restrictions—and choose a course of action that best protects our members’ health and work opportunities,” the statement reads. “The General Executive Board is seeking to lead by example.”

The IUPAT’s position is nuanced. The union is encouraging immediate support for employer vaccine mandates, while also encouraging local affiliates to put support for the mandates directly into their contracts, to stave off the duty to file member grievances over the issue.

But negotiating the latter need not come before the former, as other unions have called for.

ABOUT TWO WEEKS AGO, KEY OFFICIALS in the IUPAT met together in Las Vegas and discussed vaccinations. The rise of the delta variant helped motivate union leaders to take a firmer stance. “There’s still a continued pandemic, and when people take their eyes off the ball, especially in the workplace, that’s when things get bad,” Williams said.

There’s broad support among the American public for vaccine mandates. The COVID States Project, a polling group out of Harvard, Rutgers, Northeastern, and Northwestern Universities, found earlier this summer that 64 percent of Americans backed the government requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, including 45 percent of Republicans. Morning Consult separately found even 38 percent of Republicans backed employer-mandated vaccine mandates.

In May, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said federal laws don’t preclude employers from requiring vaccination against COVID-19, though businesses may be required to provide workers accommodations for religious reasons and disabilities. Several unions have struck deals with employers on vaccine mandates, most recently the Walt Disney Co. with 40,000 workers at Disney World in Florida, who are represented by the Services Trades Council Union.

But for now, most international unions, even those actively encouraging vaccinations, have not gone as far as the IUPAT. Earlier this month, Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), issued a statement saying that, with the delta variant spreading, vaccination is “more essential than ever.” But he stopped short of expressing support for employer mandates. “As employers establish vaccination policies, AFSCME will address the impact on workers through bargaining to ensure that the front-line heroes of this pandemic are treated fairly,” Saunders said.

Likewise, when Tyson Foods issued a vaccination requirement for its U.S. workforce earlier this month, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents 24,000 Tyson meatpackers, issued a critical statement, saying employers should negotiate such policies with their workers first. “While we support and encourage workers getting vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, and have actively encouraged our members to do so, it is concerning that Tysons is implementing this mandate before the FDA has fully approved the vaccine,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone had said. “This vaccine mandate must be negotiated so that these workers have a voice in the new policy.” (The UFCW separately supports a national mask mandate, and Pfizer’s COVID vaccine, Comirnaty, was approved by the FDA on Monday.)

SEIU, which is strongly encouraging vaccination for its members, also warns on its website that “employers may commit an unfair labor practice if they fail to bargain with the union before implementing a mandatory vaccination program.” Last week, when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a new vaccine mandate for all health care workers, nursing home workers, and public-school employees, the local SEIU affiliate president released a statement noting, “When it comes to the vaccine mandate, there is no consensus among our membership. People strongly support the mandate and people strongly oppose the mandate. But I think we can all agree that having a say in how this new policy impacts our lives is a good thing.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents unionized federal workers, said in late July that any new vaccine policy must be “properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation.”

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is currently negotiating a vaccine mandate with AT&T, and attempting to find solutions like permanent at-home work for workers who oppose the mandate.

Some unions, including the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the American Postal Workers Union, have come out against vaccination mandates writ large. Others, like the American Foreign Service Association and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, have expressed support for vaccine requirements. “We don’t think either our members or their mission should be placed at risk by those who have been hesitant to take a shot,” said IFPTE president Paul Shearon.

For his part, Richard Trumka, the recently deceased leader of the AFL-CIO, expressed his support for vaccination mandates just before his death. “If you are coming back into the workplace,” Trumka had said, “you have to know what’s around you.”