Hesitancy over childhood vaccines could prolong education inequities
Resistance to shots is highest in lower-income communities hit hardest by pandemic
A NEW POLL of K-12 parents in Massachusetts foreshadows potentially huge gaps in childhood vaccination rates once an FDA approved vaccine is available for children. These gaps are reminiscent of what we are already seeing with adult vaccinations, but could pose specific challenges to K-12 schools down the road. Schools in Gateway Cities, those with higher poverty levels, and those who have been hit hardest during COVID will see their children vaccinated slowest.
Far more parents with higher income levels and higher levels of education plan to get their children vaccinated sooner, while parents of color without college degrees are least interested in a quick vaccination. If childhood vaccinations unfold this way, it would lead to very different vaccination rates between school districts in Massachusetts, and even between schools within the same district.
The results are based on statewide survey of 1,528 parents of K-12 students in Massachusetts, conducted between February 8 and March 2. The poll was sponsored by the The Barr Foundation.
Estimates vary as to when vaccines may be available to children. In February, Dr. Anthony Fauci said vaccines may be available to children as young as first grade by September. The pace of the rollout will likely vary somewhat depending on the age of the child, since clinical trials are divided by age groups.
Massachusetts has already seen similar patterns with adult vaccinations. The Boston Globe recently reported that 47 percent of white residents of Lawrence had received the vaccine, compared to just 2 percent of Latino residents, who make up the vast majority of the city’s residents.
The situation in Lawrence gives a sense of what could happen with childhood vaccinations across the state’s Gateway Cities. Gateway Cities are already home to many of the state’s school districts with the highest proportion of parents in poverty, among many other challenges. Among Gateway City parents, only about half of parents say they would have their children vaccinated either ASAP (33 percent) or after a few others have gone (15 percent). This compares with 67 percent of parents outside of the Gateway Cities.
During COVID, Gateway Cities students and families have faced significant challenges with issues like technology access and language barriers in addition to the economic and social devastation of what has now been a yearlong pandemic. A more tenuous and difficult school reopening process could compound these difficulties, pushing normal school operations even further into the future. Areas with lower vaccination rates for both children and adults will have a far higher risk profile than other places.
Current school reopenings are going forward without a vaccine, using masking and social distancing to mitigate the risk to students and staff. But as more vaccinated people are able to gather without masks, the differences in vaccination rates between communities will become more and more conspicuous. Some schools and communities will remain at risk of outbreaks, while others are able to gather with fewer precautions and much less danger.
Disparities in vaccine rollouts are not unique to Massachusetts. With adult vaccinations, some states have kept their vaccination rates similar between white, black, and Latino residents, while elsewhere disparities are scandalously wide. Here in Massachusetts, 26 percent of white residents have received at least one dose compared to 17 percent of black and 10 percent of Latino residents.
The parent poll lets us look ahead, and anticipates a similar gap among children, a pattern also echoed by national polling. A recent nationwide parent poll found 28 percent of non-white parents in lower income households would get their children vaccinated right away, compared to 43 percent of those in higher income households.