Schools have been the front line in universal childhood vaccination in the United States since nearly the beginning of childhood vaccines, from the debates in the late 1800s and early 1900s over whether all Massachusetts students get a smallpox vaccine to more widespread mandates for measles and other shots in the 1970s.
And in recent years, of course, they have also proven the new battleground in the heated debates and protests about requiring vaccines at all.
But like with many other topics and issues these days, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new twist to that conversation, as the prospect of an effective vaccine against the coronavirus in the coming weeks and months has raised questions over whether it, too, will be required in schools — and if that vaccine mandate would include students, teachers and all school staff.
It’s still early in the discussion, given there is no childhood vaccination yet in place. But a leading state legislator this week said he plans to propose that the COVID-19 vaccination be among those required of schoolchildren once its use is approved for children.
“It should be included [among the required vaccines] unless there is a medical reason otherwise,” said state Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Senate’s health committee.
But Vitale is the first to acknowledge it gets tricky after that, as the battles over any vaccination requirements in New Jersey — and much of the country, for that matter — have proved fiery, to say the least.
Rethinking vaccine requirements
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Vitale was the primary sponsor of a bill that would have removed many of the nonmedical exemptions for vaccine requirements. But amid heated protests that took over the State House, the measure fell short of the necessary votes for approval.
Now Vitale said he believes the COVID-19 pandemic provides a new opening and brings the matter home to legislative colleagues who have been reluctant to approve his changes so far.
“I would hope that it helps [the bill’s chances],” Vitale said. “It is evidence to how critical these vaccines are. Now it’s real life.”
Here’s where it becomes a matter of wait-and-see, however. While the first vaccines are on the verge of approval for widespread distribution in the United States, none have yet gone through clinical trials with children, putting them in the relative slow-lane for now.
Even Gov. Phil Murphy, arguably the state’s strongest advocate for measures to fight the coronavirus, this week was noncommittal when asked whether he would support Vitale’s proposal to require them for children. And, while the Murphy administration has announced it would set up a statewide registry for vaccinations, it has stopped short of saying it would require them.
“I would like folks to be convinced that this is safe, efficacious, and it works, and that they come to it of their own free will,” Murphy said Wednesday. “That’s my personal bias.”
Vaccines for teachers and staff?
Child vaccinations are just part of the equation for schools. There is also the question of whether teachers and staff would also be required to be vaccinated.
Nationally, leading education associations — including the teachers unions — have pressed the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to list teachers and other school staff among the top priorities in the early distribution of the vaccines. Under the guidelines so far, they would be among the essential workers given priority, coming in a large group after health care workers.
“Everybody is holding their breath to what this means,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, representing the state’s school superintendents.
“Educators are listed as a priority, but that’s a pretty big group and we’re not sure how they prioritize within that,” he said.
And he asked a tough question: “What happens if a member of the staff doesn’t want to get the vaccine?”
‘A legal question’
“It’s really as much a legal question as a what-if question,” Bozza said. “We just don’t know yet. . . But while I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know how we could say you must get vaccinated.”
The state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, has so far stayed out of the public vaccines discussion. “We are in the process of reviewing our policies before weighing in on that,” said Steve Baker, the NJEA’s communications director.
“Generally speaking, the more we get vaccinated, the better for everybody, members and students alike,” he said Thursday. “We understand it’s a fraught issue for many people, but it is important we get the vaccine out there in wide use.”
But requiring it of teachers? “That’s what we are looking at right now,” Baker said. “It’s a contentious issue, and we want to be sure it is balanced correctly.”
Vitale, the state senator, said he had yet to consider whether vaccinations be required for educators, as well. Knowing full well there will be some who would resist, he was hesitant to take on another foe in the debate.
“It is something to consider,” he said. “I would think most [teachers] would get it, but we’d need to see.”