As Big Pharma giants vie for whose vaccine is most effective, and governments and global health organizations wrestle with access and allocation of the vaccine, are you ready for the next chapter of critical decision-making facing your school?
With drugmakers boasting 95 percent effectiveness (on adults, mind you), have you considered what impact a COVID-19 vaccine will have on your school? Will you require or be forced to be required to have your teachers and staff vaccinated? Student considerations?While progress toward an effective vaccine is certainly good news, the results of these clinical trials create even more uncertainty for school administrators who are faced with more tough decisions at a time when COVID cases are surging.
When a vaccine does become available, your school should already have made decisions about your vaccine policy. Following are some things to consider when deciding about how to handle COVID-19 vaccines in your school community.
School staff COVID vaccinations
Currently, the most pressing question very well could be whether schools can or should require proof-of-vaccination for their adult staff, teachers, and even visitors.
While there are no federal school immunization laws, all states have such laws, which takes the issue out of the hands of individual schools for specific vaccines like the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella.
Some schools require pre-arrival health screenings for their staff, a preventive measure but certainly one much less intrusive than a required vaccination. Just as school leaders make safety-driven decisions about students and staff reporting to school, they need to be in the conversation about vaccines – especially now that a new one is being developed for coronavirus.
Requiring school staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine would be sticky at best and certainly controversial.
What about the students?
While this sounds like uplifting news for your faculty, staff and other adults who comprise your school community, it doesn’t say much about the efficacy or safety of the vaccine for school-age children.
Clinical trials for new drugs and treatments in America typically do not include children. These immunizations are being developed for adults. While many doctors are advocating for the development of a pediatric vaccine, there isn’t a lot of information about when a vaccine that’s safe for children will be available.
The ongoing vaccination debate
Vaccines have always been a hot topic, despite the fact that the medical community is entirely in support of them, and hard, scientific data clearly demonstrates their efficacy and safety. The World Health Organization World Health Organization reports that immunizations currently prevent between 2 and 3 million deaths every year. They also estimate that an additional 1.5 million deaths could be avoided if more people were vaccinated.
But COVID-19 is a new virus, and the process to create a vaccine for it has been incredibly rushed – the Trump administration even named the pursuit of a vaccine “Operation Warp-speed.” This rushed process has, naturally, has made the public a little uneasy. As of September, a Gallup Poll reported that just 50 percent of Americans are currently willing to be vaccinated against coronavirus. The question on everyone’s minds: are we sacrificing effectiveness and safety for speed?
It’s not just the speedy development process for the vaccine – Americans are also understandably wary of the pharmaceutical industry as a whole. The highly public court case in which Purdue Pharma pled guilty to creating the nation’s opioid crisis is just one example of the many ways in which a profiteering healthcare model has left Americans unsure about new drugs and treatments.
So, not everyone – including some of your staff and parents of your students – will be standing in line, necessarily, to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Cover your, um, bases with school vaccine policy
It is early in the development of a coronavirus vaccine, and school officials simply don’t have the information necessary to make an informed decision about vaccine requirements – yet. But once we have more data about this new vaccine, make sure you cover the following bases when choosing whether or not to make the vaccine mandatory for your school population:
Keep it legal
Perhaps the first question is this: can your school legally mandate a vaccine? All fifty states have laws that require some specific, mandatory vaccinations for school-age children, but it’s unlikely the coronavirus vaccine will be immediately added to this list. Each state also varies on the flexibility of its exemptions for vaccine laws: some states grant religious exemption; some also grant “philosophical” exemption.
The first step in deciding whether to mandate the coronavirus vaccine at your school will be to learn about your state’s standing on school vaccinations in general. If you choose to mandate, you’ll also need to ensure you meet the requirements of HIPAA and FERPA laws while collecting information about vaccinations.
Of course, if you’re going to mandate a vaccine, it needs to be proven to be effective. What’s the point of creating a mandate if evidence doesn’t prove the vaccine will improve the general safety of your school population?
While the “established” vaccines currently required for students and staff have stood the test of time, the new coronavirus vaccine hasn’t had that opportunity – and won’t for many years.
This is the struggle with the vaccines that are currently undergoing clinical trials: there is little to no data about how these vaccines work on kids. But even if you decide to only mandate coronavirus vaccination for the adults in your school environment, the effectiveness of the vaccine should be a major part of your calculations. (see above legal considerations.)
If you choose to mandate a vaccine for your school – for adults or children or both – it shouldn’t be a burden for your community and it should be no surprise. Communicating with your school parents and staff around this subject requires some careful consideration and planning.
Your school website should be your home for urgent news updates, and your social media channels can extend your vaccine messaging quickly. Even if a COVID vaccine becomes a legal requirement for any sector of your school community, it's important you deliver the information quickly, thoroughly and delicately.
Be informed and prepared
It’s vital that you are informed and aware of the development of the coronavirus vaccine and its practical application in your school community. This list of considerations is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a start. Choosing to mandate the coronavirus vaccine for your school will be a major decision that will require extensive research and communication with families and professionals.
While drug companies, health agencies, governor's, presidents and presidents-elect work out the details, I recommend you set up a Google News alert to help stay abreast of vaccine development updates. A vaccine will be here before you know it, and you need to be prepared of its effects – and side-effects – on your school community.
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.