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Editorial: Young kids should get the COVID-19 vaccine, but not be forced to — yet

Third-grade students wear masks at school
Third-grade students wear masks at Montara Avenue Elementary School.
(Los Angeles Times)

It’s great news that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week cleared the way for children ages 5 to 11 to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19, after the FDA authorized it last week. It’s also good news that neither the state of California nor Los Angeles schools will require them to get it — yet.

That’s not to say kids should skip the vaccine. There’s good evidence that the vaccine is safe and effective for them. The best way to quell this pandemic once and for all is by vaccinating as much of the population as possible. Though the coronavirus is generally less dangerous for children, September was the worst month for infections and deaths for them, as most returned to school full time. Infected children also can spread the virus to parents, communities, teachers and other staff at school.

But because the COVID-19 vaccine is approved for kids only under emergency-use authorization it should be up to parents to decide. The Food and Drug Administration generally wants to see more evidence over time before it bestows full approval.

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Newsom’s proposal for COVID-19 vaccines probably won’t go into effect until July 2022 and doesn’t cover teachers. It’s not even close to what schools need from the state.

It’s also different legally. People have a right under federal law to refuse an emergency-use pharmaceutical. That’s why we didn’t start seeing broad vaccine mandates for adults from employers, entertainment venues and the government until the FDA issued final approval in August.

Finally, requiring a vaccine that hasn’t met with full FDA approval feeds into the conspiracy theory among vaccine skeptics that the government is trying to force an unproven “experimental” pharmaceutical on the people.

For now, L.A. Unified has the right idea: It will offer the vaccine for young students, but not require it. School officials also should heavily promote the vaccine as a great way to keep schools safe and reduce the disruption that has interrupted learning for thousands of students. Not only would it bring down the number of cases and thus the need for quarantines to have more children vaccinated, but as an added sweetener, vaccinated students can continue attending class after close contact with an infected person; unvaccinated students must quarantine. More than 2,000 students were in quarantine the week of Oct. 25 alone.

At the same time, the school district should remove the mandate for 12- to 15-year-olds who also are eligible for the vaccine under emergency-use authorization.

Some parents kept their kids home from school Monday to protest vaccine mandates. The lesson here: There’s nothing constructive about harming schools or children’s education.

The state has moved in the opposite direction, taking too conservative an approach on student vaccine requirements. Gov. Gavin Newsom doesn’t even plan to require them for those 16 and older, for whom the vaccine is fully approved, until younger students are given the same status. And once the final FDA endorsement comes in for younger groups, the vaccine requirement wouldn’t begin until the following semester, which most likely means waiting until next school year. There’s no point to putting off the safety of our schools.

Until the mandates come — because they should and they will — parents should do the smart thing for their kids and the caring thing for their schools and communities and get their kids immunized against this deadly disease as soon as they can. The vaccines have returned us to fairly normal lives. Vaccinating kids is the next big step toward making that just “normal.”


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