Portland Public Schools is grappling with whether a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for students will keep schools safe, or simply keep kids out of school.
Despite a recommendation from PPS staff to adopt a vaccine mandate for all students 12 and older, school board members may not be as eager for a mandate. The Portland Public Schools Board of Education heard from a panel of physicians and medical experts Tuesday, Sept. 29 about the efficacy and safety of COVID shots for children.
No vote was taken. Instead, board members asked about side effects, likely outcomes, equity issues and whether implementing a mandate would make schools safer and reduce community spread, or simply drive students out due to pushback.
"What we have heard from our community advisory board of the health department on this, is the spirit of a vaccine mandate, should be that you've exhausted your voluntary pathways," Dr. Jennifer Vines, Multnomah County's regional health director, told the school board.
Currently, children 12 and older are eligible to receive the vaccine. The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing data and is expected to soon determine whether the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine can be administered to children five and older.
The conundrum before PPS is multifaceted. Without a mandate, district staff fear students and employees will be at risk of infection or hospitalization, along with more instances of quarantines from exposure to infected peers. Students who are vaccinated typically don't have to quarantine after being exposed to a peer with COVID-19.
The district and state of Oregon already have a vaccine requirement for school employees.
But adopting a mandate for students comes with a host of issues. A vaccine requirement is guaranteed to get pushback from the public. Worse, a mandate could lead to many students being excluded from school.
Board member Eilidh Lowery cited a recent decision by Portland Community College not to adopt a vaccine mandate, after college officials warned a mandate was likely to disproportionately prevent students of color from being able to attend in-person classes.
Historic racism and distrust of medical systems has led to prolonged skepticism and hesitation when it comes to vaccines, one PCC board member noted.
Michelle DePass, chair of the PPS board, asked if the district had done any targeted outreach to communities of color who tend to be more vaccine hesitant.
"We're trying to understand where and what the hesitancy is, because that will inform how we engage and how we communicate with our broader community," Jonathan Garcia, chief of staff for PPS, told the board.
Even with a mandate, students and their parents can request an exemption for religious or medical reasons, though Dr. Vines noted most religions approve of and allow for vaccines.
"The vaccine should be easier than getting the exemption, but the exemptions shouldn't be impossible," Vines said.
Garcia said of the roughly 5% of PPS staff who are not vaccinated, nearly all have requested a religious exemption.
School board members Gary Hollands and Herman Greene conveyed skepticism toward the vaccines, echoing concerns from constituents about waning immunity, adverse reactions in children and the need for childhood COVID-19 immunizations at all.
"There was a debate early on during this pandemic about whether kids could spread this virus," said Dr. Joelle Simpson, an emergency pediatric physician and medical director for emergency preparedness at Children's National Health System, said. "We now know they can. And I personally see hundreds of kids that are coming into my emergency department, that are positive for COVID-19."
Dr. Simpson said syncope, or fainting spells, has been the most reported adverse event. She said cases of myocarditis—which causes chest pain, shortness of breath or abnormal heartbeat—have been reported, but cases in children have been brief.
"What we've seen for kids who've had that condition, which is a very uncommon event, and when it does occur is a very brief event, as far as we can tell, so far there's no long-term complications," Dr. Simpson said.
Greene was more blunt.
"I'm looking to see if there's any dialogue, any data, anything that shows that this uptick (in vaccinations) that we're seeing, is it truly a result of people loving the vaccine and wanting the vaccine, or is this a fear tactic that government is using to coerce people to do different things?" Greene asked, to applause from a small crowd in the room.
Dr. Simpson tried to cut through many of the misconceptions about the COVID-19 vaccines.
"One thing people confuse with the (emergency use authorization) is that it's experimental use and not emergency use," Dr. Simpson said, noting the vaccine has been approved for emergency use. "There are a lot of myths out there that it's under experimentation, and it's not. Emergency use still means it's been studied rigorously before being issued to the population."
The PPS board is scheduled to meet again Oct. 12.
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