Since COVID-19 vaccinations began in December, nearly 60% of American adults have gotten at least one jab. In April, vaccines were made available to teens 16 and older in most states, and earlier this month, vaccine eligibility expanded to kids as young as 12—opening up the possibility of vaccines for an additional 17 million young people. In a landmark speech to a joint session of Congress, President Biden pointed out that 90% of Americans now live within 5 miles of a vaccination site. Then he delivered a simple imperative: “Get vaccinated now.”
Biden had reason to issue that plea: Today, up to 1 in 4 Americans say they won’t get vaccinated, and another 5 percent are undecided. To date, only about a third of the population has been vaccinated; America is in a race against time between new COVID variants and the pace of vaccinations. Without a more effective vaccination strategy that boosts the confidence of hesitant individuals of the safety and efficacy of FDA-authorized vaccines, we are unlikely to get back to normal—which Dr. Anthony Fauci says requires 70–85% of the population to get vaccinated.
Public schools can help: As trusted local institutions, our country’s schools are well-positioned with both the physical and social infrastructure needed to help hesitant Americans overcome their concerns and get vaccinated quickly.
The reasons for reluctance are as diverse as Americans themselves: Many people are worried about vaccine safety and side effects, others are dubious about the motives of the government or pharmaceutical companies, and many communities lack access to quality health information and convenient care. Unfortunately, as Americans vacillate over vaccines, variants are growing: The most common source of new infection in the U.S is the B.1.1.7 variant that’s more contagious, deadlier, and infecting younger populations.
The best way to boost vaccine confidence is through proximate, trusted, empathetic communication, and the best way to reach more Americans is to increase equitable access to vaccines. Schools can provide both, and they are, as yet, a nearly untapped resource in the vaccination effort.
Of all our public institutions, schools have the broadest and deepest reach into the everyday lives of Americans, from those in urban centers to those in rural outposts. Almost every community has a school nearby, even if its hospital is miles away. The reach of schools is also diverse and multigenerational, as students leave school buildings to return to parents, grandparents, extended family, friends, and other loved ones of every background, race, faith, and political persuasion.
Moreover, people trust school leaders, particularly principals. Teachers, social workers, school nurses, and office staff can leverage a foundation of trust to listen, understand, and respond to concerns of students, parents, and caregivers. School leaders are well-positioned to address delicate matters like misinformation, complacency, fear, and distrust of science and data.
There are several steps schools can take to address hesitancy and equitable access to vaccines in their local communities. A 10-Point Guide for Schools to Promote Equitable COVID-19 Vaccination outlines approaches and options.
The first is by taking a deliberate and empathetic approach to COVID-19 vaccination awareness and education. At Brooklyn Lab, a public school in downtown Brooklyn, New York, our staff start by listening, without judgment, to the concerns of our community.
From this position, we’re able to begin addressing those concerns, both through one-on-one conversations and through broader communications such as town halls and newsletters.
Schools can also integrate vaccination information into curricula. In science and math classes, teachers invite students to understand the data behind the vaccine trials and use statistics, math, and science to place the risk of vaccines in context when concerns arise about certain vaccines, as has happened with Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca shots. In humanities classes, our teachers share and explore the history of medical racism that has contributed to vaccine hesitancy in some communities. They can explore successful campaigns to vaccinate Americans against polio in the 1950s or heroic efforts to use vaccination to eradicate smallpox globally in the 1970s. Teaching about vaccination history and COVID-19 in the classroom not only helps educate students with facts and science; it empowers them to become vaccine ambassadors with and for their loved ones.
Schools can also partner with local health organizations, governments, churches, businesses, unions, sports teams, nonprofits, or news outlets to run credible campaigns to educate their broader communities. To increase equitable access, schools can even offer their facilities as school vaccination sites, making it easier for working families, multigenerational households, or people in rural communities to have convenient access to a vaccine. President Biden said it: “Think of places that are convenient: School gyms, sports stadiums, community centers.”
This wouldn’t be the first time schools have served as vaccination centers; in 1954, the first polio vaccine was administered at a school in Pittsburgh and many individuals get their flu shots at their local schools. Some schools have done this during our current pandemic: Carmen Schools of Science and Technology partnered with the Milwaukee Health Department and four other schools to create a vaccination site for the school community. Within weeks, more than 80% of the staff had been vaccinated.
Some may argue that schools don’t have the time and resources to engage in the vaccine effort. Educators are overwhelmed trying to manage remote, in-person, and hybrid learning, while also supporting school communities that have endured unimaginable trauma and loss. This argument is valid, and schools do need extra support to take this on. But this is one of the greatest public health campaigns society has undertaken in generations, and yet even the most influential public health institutions don’t have the kind of local access we need to achieve herd immunity at scale. With the support of schools, we can reach more American communities.
Policymakers and government officials must support schools with the resources necessary to help communities overcome vaccine hesitancy and to vaccinate children when deemed safe. For American schools, vaccinations are a critical pathway to full reopening, and American schools might just be our next best shot for getting all Americans vaccinated.
For more, see:
How Schools Can Promote Vaccination and Address Hesitancy: A 10-Point Plan that Puts Equity First
Why We Built a Hub for Vetted Vaccination Resources for Public Schools
Meeting the Challenge of Reopening: How Laboratory School Communities Can Power Human-Centered Design and Inclusive Innovation
How to Reopen Schools: A 10-Point Plan Putting Equity at the Center
To Reopen, America Needs Laboratory School
Preparing to Reopen: Six Principles That Put Equity at the Core
Preparing for a Healthy and Safe Return to School: Public School Facilities Planning in the Era of COVID-19
Educating All Learners Alliance Launches Flagship Site, Shares Personas Educators Can Use to Understand Students’ Lived Experience During COVID-19
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Asaf Bitton is the executive director of Ariadne Labs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard T.H. Chan Public School of Health.