As COVID-19 vaccinations continue and Washington inches closer to reopening, a new school year is right around the corner.
Should schoolchildren get vaccinated for COVID-19 as they return to classrooms? Will they be required to?
Washington state officials and medical experts hosted a webinar on Wednesday to answer questions for parents about schools and vaccinations this fall.
Here’s what you need to know:
What will school look like in the fall?
All of Washington’s school districts are planning to reopen this fall with full-time, in-person instruction, according to state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal.
Because not all students are currently eligible for a vaccine, the safety precautions districts took this year will still be in place. Masks, social distancing, ventilated classrooms and cleaning protocols will still be required, though DOH officials say guidance may change this summer.
What if I don’t want to send my kids back to the classroom yet?
Check with your school district. Some districts will provide remote or hybrid learning options, but these may vary depending on a district’s capacity.
Districts that aren’t able to offer a hybrid or remote learning option are exploring regional models so that multiple smaller school districts can provide online learning options together, according to Reykdal.
You can also ask your school district about any Alternative Learning Experience (ALE) programs being offered, many of which already take place remotely.
Are COVID-19 vaccines safe for children?
The Pfizer vaccine is authorized for emergency use in ages 12 to 17, which means that enough data has been gathered from clinical trials for experts to conclude that it’s safe to use.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the side effects that some children experienced after getting the vaccine were no different than those experienced by adults.
Trials are ongoing, and more vaccines may soon be available for children. Moderna filed for FDA emergency authorization on June 10 to expand the use of its vaccine to ages 12 and older, said SheAnne Allen, COVID-19 vaccine director for the state Department of Health.
“These vaccines for young adults will go under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history,” Allen said. “That also includes these studies for adolescent and pediatric vaccines.”
When can children younger than 12 get vaccinated?
We’ll wait and see. Right now, all three of the COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — have ongoing clinical trials for children as young as 6 months old.
“If results look good, it’s certainly possible that the use of vaccines in even younger kids may come into consideration sometime this year,” said Dr. John Dunn, medical director at Kaiser Permanente. “That’s a little ways off, and there are several steps to go through before we get there.”
Should my child get the vaccine?
For kids 12 or older, officials are strongly recommending it.
Besides greatly reducing the chances of infection, the vaccine will also help prevent the transmission of COVID-19 to others and protect everyone at schools and in families, including younger children who aren’t able to get vaccinated right now.
“It’s just a game of numbers,” Reykdal said. “If everyone who is eligible gets vaccinated … they create lower probabilities of spread and therefore those who aren’t vaccinated, or who choose not to, have a lower probability of transmitting or getting the virus.”
Will vaccines be mandated for children in school?
No. Officials said until a COVID-19 vaccine is formally approved, they won’t consider adding it to the list of required immunizations.
“We feel like education, bringing vaccines to communities, offering incentives is a way more effective approach to increase our coverage rates for the COVID vaccine,” Allen said.
Reykdal urged those who choose not to get vaccinated to continue wearing masks in schools, to protect children who can’t get vaccinated yet.
“If you can’t [vaccinate] or you choose not to, which is your right, please wear a face covering,” Reykdal said. “Between those two things, we can keep a lot of people who really want to be vaccinated, younger students who aren’t quite yet eligible, we can keep them safer.”
Should I worry about the variants?
You may have heard about several COVID-19 variants that are causing concern in parts of the U.S. and in other countries.
The main three in the headlines right now are the alpha variant (first detected in the United Kingdom), the delta variant (first detected in India) and the gamma variant (first detected in Brazil). They’ve drawn concern for being more infectious and spreading COVID-19 more easily.
The state Department of Health is keeping an eye on the spread of these variants and has expressed some concern about the gamma variant, which is growing in the state. But the good news so far is that in Washington state, the variants have not been causing more severe cases of COVID.
It’s possible that vaccine booster shots may be needed for certain variants of COVID-19 in the future. State epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist stressed that the basic precautions of masks, social distancing and ventilation can still help prevent the virus from spreading.
You can watch the full webinar on the Department of Health’s Facebook page.