June 22, 2021

Will kids need to get COVID-19 vaccines to return to class in fall?

An ISBE spokeswoman punted the question to the Illinois Department of Public Health and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office, which did not respond to a request for comment.

As the battle to get COVID-19 shots into arms accelerates amid an uptick in cases, Pfizer Inc.’s announcement last week of successful trials of its vaccine in children age 12 to 15 was a relief to many parents and school officials.

The company intends to apply for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for that age group soon.

But if Pfizer shots are available to kids this summer, should school districts require eligible students get inoculated to attend classes in the fall?

That’s “the $64 million question,” said pediatrician Michael Bauer, medical director at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital.

“My feeling is that the schools will be stopping short of that, just like most employers have,” he said. His reasoning relates to the that fact all COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.S. are under emergency use authorization, although Bauer said he expected full approvals will come in the future.

Pfizer reported its vaccine showed 100% effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 among children age 12 to 15 in advanced trials. The company is continuing to study its effects on children ages six months to 11. The shot already has been approved for those 16 and older.

“We know that young immune systems tend to respond very, very well to vaccines so I’m not surprised by the data, but I’m very pleased by it,” Bauer said.

Six months ago on Oct. 5, there were 38,795 reported COVID-19 infections in teenagers and children, equaling 12.8% of the state’s total cases. On Friday, that number had climbed to 192,555 or 15.4%.

“If everything goes the way it seems to be going, there’s a very high possibility that (the Pfizer vaccine) could be approved for high school age before next school year and hopefully even for younger and younger schoolchildren sometime over the school year,” said pediatrician Anita Chandra-Puri, a spokeswoman for the Itasca-based American Academy of Pediatrics. “It would be absolutely fantastic if that was the case.”

But there are many things FDA experts will consider, she noted. “Children are not little adults, they have their own immune systems.”

Another hurdle would be the logistics of administering vaccines to millions of kids.

School districts do require standard vaccinations against diseases such as measles. But flu shots, for example, are not mandatory to attend school.

In all his discussions with state health and school board officials, “I have not heard any mention of mandatory vaccinations for school-age children,” said Republican state Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove, a father of five and an attorney.

“While it is imperative that schools continue to update their safety plans as they proceed toward the fall, I do not believe they should include mandatory vaccinations of school-age children,” he said.

Curran noted that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued guidelines saying employers can require workers to be vaccinated but with many caveats. The issue is different from a child’s right to attend school, Curran said.

His prediction: The Pritzker administration will issue recommendations but not mandates about vaccinations for students.

So far, government officials and educators have avoided the hot potato.

“We would not take a position until we receive guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Department of Public Health,” said Dave Beery, Northwest Suburban High School District 214 interim communications supervisor.

An ISBE spokeswoman punted the question to the Illinois Department of Public Health and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office, which did not respond to a request for comment.

School districts would likely only take action “if the state board opens the window,” Curran said. “I think we’ll be talking a lot about this over the summer.”