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Take the shot? Schools explore vaccine mandates for student-athletes

Aallyah Wright, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

Per the Fairfax County Public Schools policy, if Putens’ son doesn’t qualify for a religious or medical exemption, he will have to miss his last year of playing sports. Only children ages 12 to 15 have the option of submitting weekly negative COVID-19 tests to participate, in lieu of getting vaccinated.

The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for use in people ages 12 and up. That vaccine is expected to be approved for children ages 5 to 11 in the coming months.

John P. Bailey, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, said there is too little data on specific school cases to pinpoint the exact number of cases from athletic programs. When the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced Sept. 9 that middle and high school sports accounted for 45% of case clusters, Bailey said, this sounded the alarm for local schools to implement mandates.

Bailey, whose research focuses on COVID-19 and reopening schools, said the conflicting and evolving guidance, mixed with misinformation and politics, caused confusion for some parents.

“As the role of a parent, you are bombarded with different opinions and information, and whenever you see disagreement, most parents … are always going to take the conservative approach and that largely means holding off on [decisions] until they can see the scientific debates resolved,” Bailey told Stateline. “[You think], ‘Oh gosh, the CDC looked at this and issued this guidance, it’s settled.’ That’s not the way a lot of parents end up receiving or processing information and assessing risk.”

Abrar Omeish, an at-large school board member for Fairfax County Public Schools, said school boards are in a tough position because policies must be inclusive. This includes students who remain skeptical and don’t trust the government and individuals who may have personal and religious beliefs that counter the science.

 

“I did ask the superintendent to look into other options to make sure we’re not marginalizing particular groups,” Omeish said in an interview. “Just because we’re moving forward doesn’t mean we have to forget or leave behind [people] who need other accommodations.

“We look at the data, numbers, what the CDC is telling us, then the science that says these mitigation tactics work. We take that guidance and move forward knowing there’s no perfect solution.”

In Hawaii, the state Department of Education delayed the start of the fall sports season and announced that student-athletes, athletic staff and volunteers across the state should be vaccinated by Sept. 24. The mayors of New York City and Washington, D.C., made the call for schools in their cities. Discussions in City Schools of Decatur (Georgia), Portland (Oregon) Public Schools and Sacramento City (California) Unified School District may result in vaccine mandates for all students.

Efforts to require vaccines for student-athletes haven’t been successful everywhere. In North Carolina’s Orange County Public Schools, the school board voted against a vaccine requirement for students involved in high-risk sports. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the Orange County Health Department advised the district to halt sports until Sept. 30 to slow the spread of COVID-19. The board ignored the guidance, instead limiting the number of guests allowed at the games and prohibiting concession sales, the Daily Tar Heel reported. In addition, athletes must wear masks on and off the field.

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