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Editorial: Now’s the time to mandate vaccination for public school students

Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine
Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are prepared for packaging at the company’s facility in Puurs, Belgium.
(Pfizer)

The teachers of Los Angeles-area schools were ordered in August to bare their arms for vaccinations against COVID-19, and now they’re wondering: What about the students? They’re not immune from catching or spreading this virus.

United Teachers Los Angeles is calling for the L.A. Unified School District to mandate vaccination for all eligible students, which for now would mean those 12 and older, unless there is a compelling medical or religious reason. They have a valid point. With the easily transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus, everyone within the close confines of a school must help protect everyone else as much as they are able. The school district has a great coronavirus testing program, but the vaccine easily beats out tests and masks as the best way to confine the spread of the virus and greatly reduce the number of serious cases.

There’s a practical matter that stands in the way, though. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (Pfizer should fire whoever came up with the silly brand name Comirnaty) but only for people 16 and older. It is available to 12- to 15-year-olds under emergency use authorization.

The number of students 16 and older isn’t large enough — maybe just one-fifth of students — to make a big difference, and the legalities of compelling inoculation with an emergency-use vaccine are sketchy. It’s one thing for an employer to do so, because working for a certain company or organization is a voluntary contract, or when a stadium or concert hall requires vaccination, because attending a game or a show is a privilege, not a right.

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But public school is compulsory, and people have some limited rights to reject a drug under emergency use status. That’s especially true in this case because the FDA specifically withheld full approval for 12- to 15-year-olds to examine additional evidence.

With luck, the FDA will soon find the evidence it needs not just to give full approval to the vaccine for this younger group but also to allow its use in kids as young as 5. It’s still waiting for some reports before making that decision. The agency shouldn’t be subjected to political, or any other, pressure on this; any decision it makes should be based on the most solid science and without interference. That’s the right thing to do for safety and for public trust.

In the meantime, the teachers are right: L.A. Unified — and school districts statewide — should adopt a policy that mandates the vaccine for students as soon as the FDA bestows full approval for their age group. That would cover the oldest students now and then automatically include younger students as the FDA issues new decisions. So far, the findings have been that the vaccine is safe and effective for children. And even emergency use approval, when it comes, for children under 12 will help increase community protection because there are plenty of parents who would like to have their elementary-school-age children vaccinated and won’t wait for full approval.

Years before COVID-19 shuttered schools and pushed kids into remote learning, California became one of just a couple of states to require standard immunizations for all school-age children unless they were home-schooled; the only exceptions were those with valid medical conditions. COVID-19 and the Delta variant are a real and immediate threat to the public health, and the same rules should apply, at least until science or the passage of time reduces the virus’ virulence.


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