Mass. should require vaccination for all teachers and eligible students
Delta variant, low immunization rates among adolescents argue for state action
LOCAL BOARDS OF HEALTH, school committees, and municipal leaders are struggling to navigate through the challenges of assuring that all eligible school children and teachers are vaccinated. Increased urgency around the need for vaccination follows from the alarming turn the pandemic has taken. The highly contagious Delta variant has very rapidly become the dominant strain across Massachusetts and the country as a whole.
While vaccination efforts across the Commonwealth continue, low vaccination rates in adolescents are extremely concerning, especially in our largest cities. In Worcester, among those ages 12 to 19, 6 out of 10 have not been fully vaccinated. Even with enhanced vaccination efforts, including the opening of new clinics over the coming weeks, these numbers are unlikely to change substantially prior to the opening of schools or in the first weeks of the school year unless the state mandates vaccinations for eligible students — as well as for teachers and staff.
The current low vaccination rates among students do not bode well. Nationally, pediatric COVID-19 cases have been rising sharply. During the 7-day period from August 12-19, the number of cases in children rose to over 180,000, from a weekly total of 70,000 just three weeks earlier. While severe illness is fortunately less common in children, the more children who do get infected, the more hospitalizations there will be.
And there are other concerns, including what’s being called “long COVID.” Symptoms of fatigue and difficulty thinking and concentrating can linger beyond the initial infection, and a recent report suggested that long COVID symptoms can develop even in children who experience only mild initial symptoms.
Protecting teachers and school personnel must be a priority. On August 11, California announced a public health order requiring all school staff to either show proof of full vaccination or be tested at least once per week. On August 18, Washington state announced a vaccination mandate for teachers and staff, with no testing alternative, as did the nation’s largest school system, New York City, on August 23.
While Massachusetts has not specifically addressed the issue of mandating vaccination for teachers and school personnel, Gov. Charlie Baker has issued an executive order requiring all executive department employees to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination by October 17. Clearly the Commonwealth has the ability to order similar requirements for teachers and school staff, something that has been endorsed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
Many city and town boards of health and school boards have been working hard to get out in front of the pandemic to protect students and teachers with the opening of schools. For example, on August 11, the Worcester School Committee voted unanimously to require universal masking of students and school staff. Declaring “exigent circumstances,” on August 24, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education finally authorized the state education commissioner to require masks for public school students (age 5 or above) and staff until at least October 1.
Local boards of health and school boards cannot keep doing it alone. Immunization requirements for students are not under the purview of local boards of health or school boards. It falls to the state to issue requirements for vaccinations of school children, under 105 CMR (Code of Massachusetts Regulations) 220.000.Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the single most important way of keeping our children and our teachers safe. It’s time for the state of Massachusetts to lead rather than follow. To assure a safe and uninterrupted school year, the state should implement a vaccine requirement for all eligible students, teachers, and staff.
Jerry Gurwitz, MD, is vice chair of the Worcester Board of Health and executive director of the Meyers Health Care Institute, a joint endeavor of University of Massachusetts Medical School, Fallon Health, and Reliant Medical Group. Tracy O’Connell Novick is a member of the Worcester School Committee.