White House Makes Back-to-School Push for Student Vaccinations

With vaccination rates lagging among young people, the administration wants to incorporate vaccination into school sports physicals and is asking schools to host vaccine clinics.,

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WASHINGTON — The White House, worried that coronavirus vaccination rates among young people are lagging as the school year approaches, is enlisting pediatricians to incorporate vaccination into back-to-school sports physicals and encouraging schools to host their own vaccination clinics as part of a new push to get students their shots.

The initiative, announced on Thursday by Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona, is part of a broader “return to school road map” aimed at getting students back to in-person learning this fall. School officials around the country are worried that a surge in coronavirus cases, fueled by the highly infectious Delta variant, will threaten the return.

Roughly 90 percent of the country’s educators are vaccinated, Dr. Cardona said during an appearance in the White House briefing room, and the administration sees vaccinating students as essential to keeping schools open. But experts and school superintendents said in interviews that increasing vaccination rates among students may be a slow and uphill battle.

“When you look at a map of the United States and you see those states that have low vaccination rates and high infection rates, those are the areas where superintendents are having problems in getting kids vaccinated,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA: The School Superintendents Association, which represents about 13,000 superintendents around the country.

Young people ages 12 and older have been eligible for vaccination since May, when the Food and Drug Administration gave emergency authorization to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Though the nation has met President Biden’s goal of having at least 70 percent of adults at least partially vaccinated, only 40.7 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds and 51 percent of 16- to 17- year olds have received at least one dose, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last week the C.D.C. said it wanted in-person schooling to resume across the country, and updated its mask guidance to call for universal mask use by students, staff members and visitors in schools, regardless of their vaccination status or the rate of community transmission of the virus.

Dr. Cardona issued a pointed message to Republican governors, including Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, about the steps they have taken to prevent local officials from requiring face coverings.

“Don’t be the reason why schools are interrupted,” Dr. Cardona said. “Kids have suffered enough.”

A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to preview Dr. Cardona’s announcement, said the administration was focusing on school athletics as an important path to vaccination.

Millions of students play organized sports, and some school officials are making the case that if student athletes get vaccinated, they will be able to avoid quarantining — and forfeiting their games — if they are exposed to an infected person.

To that end, the White House official said, the administration has enlisted groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine to help put out guidance for doctors and update the forms required for school physicals. Dr. Cardona and Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, are expected to visit a school vaccination clinic in Kansas next week.

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“Don’t be the reason why schools are interrupted,” said Miguel A. Cardona, the education secretary. “Kids have suffered enough.”Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

The White House has also declared the week beginning this Saturday as “a week of action,” in which the administration is partnering with community groups to run texting campaigns and phone banks to encourage young people to get their shots.

Mr. Biden called last week for every school district to host at least one pop-up vaccination clinic, and many schools and school districts — particularly those in urban areas — are already doing so.

The Covid Collaborative, a bipartisan group of politicians and policymakers, has also been working with the White House and educational associations to promote school-based clinics.

“Schools as vaccination sites is an issue whose time has come,” said John Bridgeland, a founder of the collaborative.

Understand the State of Vaccine Mandates in the U.S.

College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated for Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get the Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force. In N.Y.C., workers in city-run hospitals and health clinics will be required to get vaccinated or else get tested on a weekly basis.Federal employees. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees must be vaccinated against the coronavirus or be forced to submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel. State workers in New York will face similar restrictions.Can your employer require a vaccine? Companies can require workers entering the workplace to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to recent U.S. government guidance.

Schools have been integral to past vaccination campaigns, especially those aimed at controlling infectious diseases. In 1875, New York City used schools to deliver the smallpox vaccine, and schools were used in the 1950s to deliver the Salk polio vaccine. During the 2012-13 school year, a school vaccination project in rural Kentucky administered the HPV vaccine, significantly improving vaccination rates, according to the National Association of School Nurses.

But like everything else in the pandemic, the coronavirus vaccines have become caught up in partisan politics. Some school officials are finding that persuading parents to get their students vaccinated is difficult, and some are encountering resistance to using schools as vaccination clinics.

The school district in Anchorage has been a national leader in encouraging vaccination. A clinic it hosted last year at the district headquarters drew 29,000 people between January and April, many of them older adults eager for their shots, the district superintendent, Deena Bishop, said in an interview.

But when Anchorage set up clinics in schools over the summer, the demand was much lower; those clinics vaccinated only about 30 students a day, Dr. Bishop said. She said athletes, in particular, respond to the message that vaccination can help them avoid having to quarantine after an exposure to the coronavirus.

“Kids will bug their parents more about playing sports and having a vaccine than they would just to go to science class,” she said, adding, “We’re disappointed in the number of people coming out to get vaccinated, but we’re just trying to think of new ways, new manners to connect.”

Dr. Cardona reiterated the president’s call for schools to host pop-up vaccine clinics. But some superintendents said school-based clinics, which typically partner with local pharmacies or county health departments, are an especially hard sell in rural areas where there is already resistance to vaccination.

“For people who are for it, it’s an easy one — they support vaccination as a strong strategy to fight Covid, and they don’t see any issue with the use of public space,” said Kristi Wilson, the superintendent of the Buckeye Elementary School District, just outside Phoenix, and the immediate past president of the superintendents association.

“But the other side I’m hearing is, ‘Where do you draw the line? Who’s going to administer it? Even if public health does it, is it an appropriate use of space?'” she said. “If you have a community that is very anti-vaccination, how do you manage that?”

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