Washington officials who oversee the state’s immunization policies in schools won’t consider a requirement to mandate COVID-19 vaccines in schoolchildren until a vaccine is fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, state officials said this week. 

The FDA on Monday signed off on emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine in 12- to 15-year-olds, opening a new chapter in the nation’s vaccine rollout; more than 370,000 Washington teens and adolescents are in this age group, the state’s secretary of health, Dr. Umair Shah, said Tuesday. Teens 16 and up are already eligible, but immunizing younger adolescents and teenagers could be critical to returning to some sense of normality in schools nationwide. 

Like the Pfizer vaccine, the approval process for the two other vaccines available here — from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — was also streamlined by the FDA for emergency use in response to the public health crisis. Vaccines undergo rigorous review before they’re fully approved, but the FDA can allow them sooner under so-called “emergency use authorization” in instances when vaccines meet certain criteria and there are no approved alternatives.

Until a COVID-19 vaccine is formally approved, however, officials from the Washington State Board of Health — the board that oversees state vaccine policies — say they won’t consider adding it to the list of required immunizations.

“The board would not require a COVID-19 vaccine for school entry until it’s approved by the FDA and recommended by Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices,” Kelie Kahler, spokesperson for the board, wrote in an email, referring to a committee housed within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that sets national vaccine guidance. The committee is meeting in an emergency session Wednesday to discuss whether to recommend the vaccine in children, a final hurdle that would pave the way for states to begin vaccinating younger teens later this week. “Then the board would review the vaccine based on the state’s immunization’s criteria,” Kahler said.

If a vaccine meets the state’s criteria, she said, the board could then consider adding it to Washington’s list. 

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On a Tuesday call with reporters, Shah did not say if he supports requiring the vaccine, but said the state will encourage or incentivize families to get their children vaccinated. Although children and teens tend to have less severe symptoms if they get infected, he said, “adolescents can still get sick.”

“We do believe that schools are safe for in-person learning now,” he said. But vaccinating this younger age group would help ensure the state can help “protect our kids in schools.”

Washington currently requires that students submit proof of immunity or immunization records for chickenpox, polio, hepatitis B, the combined tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis vaccine (Tdap), and the combined measles, mumps and rubella shot (MMR); under a 2019 law, families could submit medical or religious reasons to exempt children from the MMR. Districts generally work with families to help them comply — but are supposed to exclude children from school if they don’t submit vaccine records.

Immunizing children against COVID-19 could greatly expand the nation’s circle of immunity, but requiring it could prove tricky. Vaccinating children requires parental consent, and a recent national poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor suggests many parents are hesitant to allow their children to get vaccinated right away — or ever. And in Washington in recent years, vaccine compliance in schools has been spotty. According to a 2017-18 state audit, Washington officials didn’t know how many children had received their required vaccinations. About 1 in 10 districts didn’t submit any vaccine data to the Washington Department of Health.

“We’re all just really eagerly waiting to see whether it lands,” said Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools, referring to the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine requirement. Enfield said she’s “baffled” when she hears questions about whether her school district or any other in Washington might independently require a vaccine, and made clear that “this is a state decision. Full stop.” 

“We will comply with the state as we do with every other vaccine.”

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Enfield said the district will encourage eligible students to get immunized, but hasn’t polled students to see how they feel about COVID-19 vaccines. The district is speaking with public health officials to host student vaccination clinics, she said, but hasn’t yet finalized plans. 

Other districts are moving forward with vaccine clinics for kids. Bellevue School District will have at least 750 shots available to the district’s high schoolers starting on May 15, the district announced in early May, and will set up pop-up clinics at Sammamish High School. Richland School District, in Central Washington, began vaccinating its high schoolers in early May, the Tri-City Herald reported.

Washington plans to use an “all-in approach” to get shots in kids’ arms, Shah said, adding that health officials are working with pediatricians’ offices, school districts and pharmacies to expand vaccine access.

All but one of Washington’s public universities have announced vaccine mandates starting next fall, with some allowances for personal, medical or religious exemptions. Eastern Washington University won’t require that its community get vaccinated, but is strongly urging students, faculty and staff to do so. Several private universities, including Seattle University and Pacific Lutheran University, have also announced vaccine requirements.

But students at most schools won’t face penalties — like being barred from registering for classes — if they fail to comply. An exception is Washington State University, where officials have said that students who live in campus housing will have to provide proof of vaccination by Aug. 6. All other students have until Nov. 1 to submit records; those who don’t won’t be allowed to register for spring courses.