When COVID-19 cases proliferated during the first few weeks of this school year, Scott Brabrand, superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, had to send numerous high school students home while school officials verified their vaccination status and traced their contacts. After further investigation, Brabrand determined that most of the positive cases originated with student-athletes.
That conclusion was a major factor in his decision to require that Fairfax County student-athletes be vaccinated ahead of the winter season no matter the sport, including physical activities such as step teams and dance.
“Our athletic program has driven a large number of kids into having to be ‘paused,’” Brabrand said in an interview. “We knew moving forward with a vaccination mandate for our athletes preserves the instructional program for our school system, but frankly, it preserves the athletic program for our athletes.”
At least 12 states ban schools from requiring vaccines for students. The push to get more middle and high school athletes inoculated ahead of the winter season has rested heavily on local mayors and school leaders. Officials in counties and cities in California, Maryland, New York and Virginia as well as the District of Columbia are mandating vaccinations — with a few exceptions for weekly testing — for student-athletes. Hawaii has a statewide vaccine requirement for public school student-athletes.
School administrators and sports advocates say mandates stop disruptions to instructional time and keep kids safe.
COVID-19 outbreaks from last year and this fall that originated in schools often were traced back to sports, leaders say, which led them to mandate vaccines for athletes as opposed to all students. Many sports involve close contact, which increases the risk of COVID-19 infections. The paramount goal is to keep schools open and extracurricular activities going, the school leaders say, channeling the consensus that last year’s school closures and cancellations of activities wreaked havoc on kids’ mental and physical health.
Some school officials have expanded the mandates to all eligible students, not just athletes.
“In my own district, we’re already mandating vaccinations for students aged 12 and up and adults,” said Quoc Tran, superintendent of Culver City Unified School District in California. “[For student-athletes], many districts [in California] that I am aware of do not contest the mandatory vaccination policy at all because if you did, then you’ve just written off the entire athletic scholastic scholarships for a lot of our students.”
Some parents, however, feel the choice should be left up to them.
In preparation to reopen schools safely this fall, the Biden administration urged doctors and school officials to incorporate COVID-19 vaccines into physicals for sports. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine advised medical providers to ask about vaccine status during preparticipation physicals.