Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

D.C. schools require at least 10 vaccinations against common diseases before children can start attending school. The D.C. Council is considering adding a new vaccine for students of every age.

A new bill would require all “licensed child development facilities’” staff AND students to be fully immunized against COVID-19. This would include public, charter, and private schools well as child care workers. The bill, introduced by At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson, would set a deadline of Dec. 15 for staff and students to reach full immunization, and would allow for medical and religious exemptions.

D.C.’s 12- to 17-year-old student population sits just over 40 percent partially vaccinated, as of Oct. 18. These low vaccine numbers have made the 2021/2022 school year completely chaotic. Hundreds of students and teachers have tested positive for the virus and have been forced to quarantine. Henderson says this “understandably contributes to family and community anxiety about in-person learning.” In introducing the bill, Henderson notes that D.C.’s school testing program has fallen short of its goal. For the week of Sept. 21, 8.7 percent of students were tested for the virus. That’s short of the District’s goal to test 10 to 20 percent of the student population.

Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau, Charles Allen, Elissa Silverman, Janeese Lewis George and Mary Cheh are co-introducers; Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto is tagging along as a co-sponsor. The bill says all “eligible school students” must get the vaccine. With Pfizer’s vaccine for 5 to 11-year-olds getting emergency use authorization by the FDA soon, it appears this would apply all the way from kindergarten to 12th grade.

On Wednesday morning, the Council’s Committee of the Whole held a roundtable discussion with committee members and the public offering their support and detractions.

SUPPORTERS

Vaccine requirements already exist: Those who supported the measure say it wouldn’t be out of step with other vaccination requirements already in place for other students and teachers. The requirement falls in line with an HPV vaccine for public school students and a yearly tuberculosis vaccination for childcare workers. Folding in another vaccine would make sense.

Student-athletes mandate: Mayor Muriel Bowser has already required all students-athletes over the age of 12 to be vaccinated against the virus. With some students already having a school mandated vaccination, it’s not a reach to fold in their fellow students.

Teachers’ peace of mind: Concerns around teachers’ health also came into the conversation. One DCPS employee, Heather Schoell, says the chaos and anxiety has left teachers “depleted and defeated.”

“I’m really afraid that they’re not coming back next year because of the level of stress,” she says. “And I can’t blame them.”

DETRACTORS

It’s important to note that, while public witnesses made some unsubstantiated claims, many people said they support the coronavirus vaccine and a mandate. They have other issues with this specific bill.

Tight timeline: The bill would require parents or guardians to submit proof that their child is fully vaccinated against COVID by Dec. 15. Teachers are required to do the same. This puts a borderline unrealistic timeline on parents. The CDC recommends three to four weeks between a first and second dose. After the second shot, it takes two weeks before a person is fully vaccinated. If the bill were passed today, parents would have to rush to get their kids started on the vaccine right away. Witnesses say this could trade one chaotic situation for another. 

Parent’s vaccine hesitancy: There is hesitancy among parents as approval for a COVID-19 vaccine for children 5 to 11 sits on the horizon. Many said this takes away parents’ ability to make the best choice for their children.

Racial disparities: A discussion of how the mandate would affect people of color also came up in the conversation. Less than 25 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds in wards 7 and 8 are vaccinated—far behind every other ward, which sits above 40 percent. Shannon Hodge, the founding executive director of the DC Charter School Alliance, says this bill doesn’t take this and other factors into account.

“Disparities in vaccination rates among Black residents continue to persist thanks to unequal health care access, historic mistrust of the medical establishment and vaccine misinformation,” Hodge said. “Knowing what we know, it seems untenable to plan to exclude our most vulnerable students from school.”
At-Large Councilmember Robert White, who often votes along with the Council’s left-leaning members, expressed reservations about the bill. He agreed with witnesses’ concerns about the Dec. 15 deadline, and in a statement after the hearing said that a mandate “might make families resistant” altogether. He added that he hasn’t taken a stance on the bill.

Bailey Vogt (tips? bvogt@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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Credit: Kimberly Zsebe/ZBimages

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