December 11th, 2021, marked one year since the emergency use authorization of the first COVID-19 vaccine, which is now available for anybody aged 5 and up. Vaccines are our best tool to combat a virus that has taken nearly one million lives in the United States and wreaked havoc on many of our social structures, including the public education system. Yet at a time when we need educators to help our struggling students recover from the pandemic, school boards across Orange County are wasting time and energy in misguided attempts to undermine a statewide  COVID-19 vaccine policy.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s policy requiring K-12 students in the state’s public and private schools to get vaccinated against COVID-19 is intended to help schools safely maintain in-person instruction. This policy will not go into place immediately; it requires full FDA approval before school systems can enforce the vaccine requirement. Currently vaccines for school-aged children are only available through an emergency use authorization.

Several school boards across the county have formally opposed the vaccine requirement, while others are considering drafting similar letters to the Governor. These letters rightly highlight the importance of in-person instruction for students’ academic and social development and the crucial role that school districts play as a primary provider of essential services for many children.

These letters, however, do more harm than benefit. First, COVID-19 vaccines do work and make it easier and safer to get children back in school permanently. Second, they obfuscate important details about the vaccine policy. The letters often cite a lack of data on the COVID-19 vaccines’ longer-term consequences for children as important evidence against the policy, ignoring that the policy will not go into effect until the FDA provides full approval of the vaccine for children through its lengthy and rigorous review process. They also argue guardians should have the right to make a choice that is best for their children without mentioning that the policy does allow for choice through personal and medical exemptions.

Third, the letters claim vaccine requirements may prompt families to opt out of our public schools, creating economic hardships for our school districts.  However, vaccine requirements have broad support from voters across California, with approximately 69% of voters in California supporting them. Further, in recognition of the importance of vaccinations in maintaining health and safety, vaccine requirements have decades-old precedents in California and across the country. These letters fail to represent majority viewpoints, and school boards should represent their communities. Boards should instead be concerned that failure to mandate vaccination will lead to an even greater exodus of parents concerned about the safety of their children.

Fourth, these letters send a clear message: the loud voices of a minority who oppose vaccine requirements for attending public schools are more important than the health and safety of our students, teachers, staff, and communities. This message teaches our children to focus on individualism and self-interest rather than how their behavior helps or harms the collective good.  

Finally, the debate over COVID-19 safety protocols, vaccine mandates, and other politically contentious topics divides us unnecessarily and distracts us from what matters most: ensuring that our educators have the resources and support needed to help our children recover from the pandemic. Faced with unprecedented disruption to typical learning environments and the ever-present threat of a COVID-19 outbreak, educators have done a remarkable job during the pandemic, and parents recognize that. Even with these herculean efforts, students are struggling. They are struggling academically. They are struggling with unprecedented mental health issues. They are struggling to attend school regularly. Without strong intervention these struggles may result in severe, lasting consequences for students.

There is widespread agreement that in-person learning opportunities are critical for students.  Additionally, school districts have an influx of COVID-19 recovery funding. Rather than engaging in heated political debate over issues unrelated to the teaching and learning of students, school boards should focus their efforts on promoting the implementation of additional learning opportunities, providing social-emotional supports, and delivering other opportunities for students to catch-up.  

Andrew McEachin lives with his wife and two children in Huntington Beach. He is an education policy researcher, and teaches graduate-level courses on statistics and economics of education. @ajmceachin

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