Should DC students be required to receive COVID-19 vaccine? Parents, council members weigh options

D.C. parents largely spoke in favor Wednesday of a proposed bill that would require all eligible students to receive the coronavirus vaccine. But many raised concerns over how the requirement would be implemented, and called for pushing back the deadline into next year.

As written, the Coronavirus Immunization of School Students and Early Childhood Workers Amendment Act of 2021 would call for eligible students to be vaccinated by Dec. 15. The mandate, which includes the option for a medical or religious exemption, also calls for employees of licensed child development facilities in the city to be vaccinated.

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn called the legislation “rushed,” saying the December deadline would “result in a rushed rollout, create more confusion and pressure on schools, and lead to mixed enforcement at best.”

Instead, Kihn said, he and Mayor Muriel Bowser prefer a phased approach to vaccine requirements. D.C. currently has a vaccine mandate for city employees, which includes school staff, and student-athletes.

Wednesday’s roundtable was the latest in a series of clashes between Bowser’s administration and the council over how to best handle coronavirus-related issues in city schools. If the legislation is approved, D.C. would become the first in the region to implement a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for all students.

“Please support the strongest tool we have toward ushering our schools and our city out of the pandemic,” parent Sandra Moscoso said at the hearing. “Mandate vaccines for eligible students.”

Some council members called for the mandate to be included in the previous schools-related legislation, which expanded virtual learning, the passed earlier this month. However, others recommended a public hearing first.

Parent Valerie Jablow said the mandate is necessary.

“About 50,000 students in D.C.’s publicly funded schools who are not yet eligible for vaccination are currently attending school in person five days a week by mayoral fiat, while this body is holding virtual hearings,” Jablow said.

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Dr. Claire Boogaard, the medical director of the coronavirus vaccine program at Children’s National, stressed the importance of vaccination but said the timeline would be challenging. She said students would have to receive their first dose by Nov. 24 to meet the December deadline.

“While we experienced an early rush of interest in vaccinations for our patients 12 years and over, families currently require opportunity for significant conversations to address their concerns or questions about the COVID-19 vaccine that may extend over multiple visits,” Boogaard said.

Shannon Hodge, founding executive director of the DC Charter School Alliance, said a vaccine mandate would have a disproportionate effect on students of color and would require schools to manage yet another policy shift.

“Before implementation of a student vaccine mandate, city officials and school leaders need to be able to answer the many questions that will arise,” Hodge said. “The failure to clearly, carefully and swiftly deliberate and address these concerns before imposing a citywide student vaccine mandate will result in schools, parents and students being left confused and frustrated.”

Kihn, meanwhile, said once the vaccine for younger kids is approved, parents need ample time to learn more about the vaccine. He said schools shouldn’t assume the burden of processing exemption requests and collecting vaccine paperwork and added the mandate could discourage families from sending their kids to school.

The administration is exploring how best to require vaccines for different student age groups, Kihn said.

Vaccines are currently available for students 12 and older. Data from D.C. show roughly 60% of kids 12 to 17 are at least partially vaccinated compared to more than 84% of all eligible D.C. residents.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is scheduled to meet next week to discuss recommendations for vaccination for the 5-11 age group.

“For us, it’s really about this tradeoff between putting thousands and thousands of kids out of school, versus having a mandate imposed midyear at this point,” Kihn said. “We don’t think that’s the right decision to make.”

As the hearing ended, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson summarized the council’s sentiment.

“We’re being presented with a quandary: We want everybody to be vaccinated, but don’t move this bill that requires that everybody be vaccinated.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

John Aaron

John Aaron is a news anchor and reporter for WTOP. After starting his professional broadcast career as an anchor and reporter for WGET and WGTY in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he went on to spend several years in the world of sports media, working for Comcast SportsNet, MLB Network Radio, and WTOP.

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