Through the long tunnel of time, Jackie French Lonergan still remembers the day very clearly. It was April 26, 1954, and she was a second-grader at Franklin Sherman Elementary in McLean, Va., a little girl with dark hair and a gaptoothed grin.
Lonergan lined up with her classmates in the school’s multipurpose room, she recalls, and when she got to the front, she glanced over briefly as her family doctor, in white lab coat and with lollipops at the ready, jabbed her upper arm with a hypodermic needle. Nearby, cameras flashed, capturing the historic moment for posterity.
Lonergan’s parents had quickly signed the permission slip, worrying little or not at all about the fact that their daughter and 81 other second-graders at Franklin Sherman were about to be guinea pigs – the very first children in the country to receive the polio vaccine as part of a massive national trial to test the immunization before offering it to the general public.
“You never questioned anything,” Lonergan, now 75, said last week from her home in Bryn Mawr, Pa., fresh from receiving her booster shot against the coronavirus. “We were very patriotic then. The war was over and the country was booming. It was a very optimistic time. . . . It’s really hard to understand what is happening today.”
On Monday, Franklin Sherman reprised its historic role as a vaccination site for Fairfax County schoolchildren. First lady Jill Biden and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy were on hand at the elementary school to help launch another mass pediatric vaccination campaign – this one aimed at protecting children ages 5 to 11 from covid-19. About 260 students were expected to receive their Pfizer-BioNTech shots, most of them from Franklin Sherman. They’ll return in three weeks for the second jab.
But the new push arrives in a country that has been fiercely divided over mask mandates and vaccination for adults and is now riven over immunizing its children.
According to a survey released late last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 3 in 10 parents said they will get their children vaccinated “immediately,” another third said they will take a “wait-and-see approach” and the rest are opposed to vaccinating their children at all. Although safety concerns cross political lines, party divisions are also apparent. Just 46% of Republicans support vaccination mandates for children, according to an October YouGov poll, a 13 percentage point drop from just 14 months earlier, compared with 85% of Democrats. Meanwhile, in Virginia, masking and vaccine mandates figured prominently in the governor’s race.
Yet perhaps surprisingly in a community about equally split between Republicans and Democrats, Franklin Sherman’s handling of the pandemic and the attitude among parents toward vaccinating children appear to run counter to the popular narrative.
A spirit of unity about making the health of Franklin Sherman’s 300 or so students a priority pervades the school, much as it did in the 1950s, according to parents across the political spectrum. This time, however, it’s fueled less by patriotism and faith in government than high levels of education, including medical degrees. Parents networked and studied how to best combat the virus, with the common goal of keeping their children in school, and then put their knowledge and faith in science into practice.
If anything, “the sense of community at the school has gotten stronger” because of the pandemic, said PTA President Shreem Ramineni, whose daughter, Shaila, is a second-grader at the school. “I have to say we’ve really come together and rallied around each other.”
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When Lonergan attended the low-slung red-brick elementary school on Brawner Street, McLean was still sparsely developed farmland sprinkled with clapboard houses, modest ranch homes, Cape Cods and split-levels – far different from the sprawling, multimillion-dollar manses that characterize the neighborhood today.
In 1954, working- and middle-class families lived in McLean, many over several generations, said Lonergan, who can still recall when the first upscale subdivision was built, with homes offered for $34,000. Lonergan and the neighborhood’s other children roamed one another’s rolling yards and ventured to the variety store “downtown” to buy sodas and candy bars.
“There was so much freedom and so little fear,” she said.
Lonergan’s father, a carpenter who had served in the Navy during World War II, purchased a half-acre lot on Old Chesterbrook Road for $500 and built the family home himself, next door to her grandparents.
Lonergan’s mother had also attended Franklin Sherman as a child, and her uncle taught there, too. In 1954, the school, led by Principal Ruby Dunkum, was still new but was already bursting with little baby boomers, with some students attending classes in steel Quonset huts. Yet the devastation of polio lurked at the edges of Lonergan’s otherwise idyllic childhood bubble. She recalled a boy in her class with a shriveled leg and people lumbering in leg braces while she was out shopping with her mother.
In 1952, cases of the virus had peaked at nearly 58,000 in the United States, with more than a third of sufferers dying or left paralyzed. Unlike covid-19, polio afflicted mostly very young children, who spread it asymptomatically during the summer months through fecal matter due to poor hand hygiene. Parents lived in fear that their children would be crippled, killed or confined to an iron lung – making vaccination more appealing than in today’s pandemic. Children can spread the coronavirus but are rarely hospitalized or die. In Virginia, 237 children have been hospitalized with covid-19, and just one has died since March 2020.
In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had lost the use of his legs after a polio diagnosis as an adult, co-founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, later renamed the March of Dimes, to combat the disease. Fifteen years later, in 1953, American virologist Jonas Salk, whose research the foundation had funded, announced a breakthrough – the creation of a safe polio vaccine that he had successfully tested on his own children.
The stage was set for a sprawling national trial involving about 600,000 schoolchildren who would either receive the real vaccine containing killed virus or a placebo. Another million or so children, who did not receive a shot, formed a second control group and were kept under observation.
In the weeks before the trial began, D.C. officials pulled out of the plan that would have made the nation’s capital the first vaccine site. Montgomery County in suburban Maryland withdrew soon after. Then in early April, influential radio personality Walter Winchell issued an on-air warning.
“In a few minutes, I will report on a new polio vaccine. It could be a killer,” he said, spooking parents and school officials across the country.
Fairfax County, however, persisted, and at 9:35 a.m. on April 26, 1954, a Franklin Sherman second-grader named Randy Kerr became the first child in the nation to be vaccinated.
Lonergan’s family doctor, Richard Mulvaney, a no-nonsense former Army doctor who had won a Bronze Star during the Korean War, was heralded as a campaign hero.
The photo of the physician vaccinating Lonergan, who recalls barely flinching, later became a March of Dimes poster, among those featuring the newly minted “Polio Pioneers.”
At the start of the general vaccination campaign in 1955, a batch of vaccine tainted by live virus at Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, Calif., sickened about 40,000 children, paralyzing 51 and killing five.
Yet despite the famous catastrophe, the trial still achieved its goal: Sixty-five years later, the United States and most of the world are polio-free.
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Ramineni vaguely remembers hearing about Franklin Sherman’s place in history during the kindergarten orientation for her 9-year-old twins. At the time, she only half-listened, she said, as she obsessively mulled over whether her children should walk or take the bus.
Now, reflecting back: “It’s pretty crazy how everything came full circle, right?”
After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, Ramineni said parents united around one goal once full-time in-person learning started after Labor Day: keeping their children covid-free so they could all remain in school. Like affluent, well-educated parents everywhere, they used the connections they had to devise a plan.
Ramineni, a tax attorney who is now a stay-at-home mom and married to a plastic surgeon, tapped Adrienne Dreyfuss, a PTA board member who is also a pediatrician. Dreyfuss in turn sought out someone she knew on the White House Covid-19 Response Team, who recommended a multilayered approach.
In just one week, the PTA raised $16,000 to augment the school’s HEPA filters with free-standing air purifiers in common spaces. Students sit socially distanced in pods of four at tables in class and in the cafeteria, so if one child shows possible symptoms just the children at their table need to quarantine. The children have adapted to masking so well that they keep them on throughout recess when they’re not required to, Ramineni said.
Since September, only one student at Franklin Sherman has become infected with the virus, according to Principal Kathleen Quigley.
Demographics may have helped foster the unity. While Republicans are much more likely to be unvaccinated than Democrats, suburban adults, adults with at least a college education and those who make more than $90,000 of all political persuasions are far more likely to get vaccinated. They also might be more likely to vaccinate their children – 86.9% of 12-to-17-year-olds in Fairfax County are vaccinated, compared with just 58% nationally. In a county where 28% of residents voted for Donald Trump in the last presidential election, a majority of precincts in McLean went for the Republican.
Alison Wager, who describes herself as conservative, said she and other parents were frustrated by Fairfax County’s slow return to in-person schooling and the mandatory mask policy, which they worry could stifle learning and social skills. But her family values education more, she said, and she plans to vaccinate her children.
“I think all of the parents are open to doing whatever it takes to keep schools open and the students healthy,” said Wager, who has a first-grader and a second-grader at Franklin Sherman and owns a cybersecurity firm with her husband, Mike.
Quigley, who became principal in 2010, concurs. “From everything I can tell, our parent community is very eager to have their children vaccinated,” she said.
Like a third of parents nationally, some plan to wait a bit to see how side effects play out.
Margot Brown, who has a second-grader at the school, recalled an uncle who died of myocarditis, or heart inflammation. Though researchers consider myocarditis a rare side effect of some coronavirus vaccines, Brown said she will wait until January before she gets her 9-year-old son immunized after alerting his pediatrician.
“But my children will definitely get the vaccine. We don’t know the long-term side effects of covid-19 either, but nobody talks about that,″ said Brown, a vice president at a national environmental nonprofit who holds advanced degrees in public health.
Two weeks ago, prompted by the looming pediatric covid-19 campaign, the school’s sixth-grade teachers incorporated the school’s starring role in 1954 into their lesson plans. They explored, among other things, the history of polio, the development of vaccines and the difference between primary and secondary sources as they compared news reports in the 1950s with those in recent years.
Ishani Patel, 31, a petite woman in a long, flowing skirt, stood in her bright yellow classroom and quizzed her students on what they’d learned during the week.
“What are some of the things you remember about the polio vaccine?” Patel began.
“The first trials of the vaccine were here at Franklin Sherman,” a girl in the back of the class ventured.
“That’s right. The first trials were right here at your school! Woo!” Patel responded.
Around Patel, the children had clustered together to work on public service announcement posters aimed at persuading the school’s younger students to protect themselves against the coronavirus.
As he sprawled on the floor with his two teammates to brainstorm a motto – “Get A Mask and Stop Covid Fast!” – 11-year-old Everett Munson imagined life after vaccination.
“The new vaccine would make it easier to go places,” he said.
His mother, a pharmacy school professor, is fully on board, he said.
“She said the faster I can get vaccinated, the better.”