Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) stressed at a news conference Monday that for the upcoming academic year, the city will strictly enforce school vaccine requirements which include inoculations against polio, measles and hepatitis. Any student who is not up-to-date on vaccines within 20 days from the start of the school year will not be allowed to attend, she said. There will be no virtual learning option for them.
The D.C. Council passed legislation last year that would require students to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, but that will only go into effect once the Food and Drug Administration gives full approval for a vaccine. A vaccine for children as young as 5 has only received emergency authorization, not full approval.
“We know parents get kids shots every single year and we have to get back to that cycle of making sure our children are vaccinated,” Bowser said at the news conference, which occurred in the parking lot of the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus, or THEARC, a large community center in Southeast Washington with a Children’s National Hospital health clinic. “An outbreak of measles and whooping cough in a world where we have safe and effective vaccines should be unacceptable.”
The District had relatively low youth compliance rates for routine immunizations even before the coronavirus pandemic made non-emergency visits to doctors less frequent — and the rates have only fallen since then. Officials did not have precise numbers for the percentage of kids up-to-date on vaccines, but Thomas Farley — senior deputy director of the community health administration at DC Health — said only 80 percent of kindergartners are in compliance.
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At a Healthy Youth and Schools Commission meeting last month, a city official estimated that if the city were to enforce the immunization attendance requirement right then, 20,000 students would be sent home. That’s slightly more than 20 percent of the entire traditional public and charter school population.
The District’s schools did not stringently enforce the routine vaccination requirements this school year. Enforcing it would have kept many children out of school after a large portion of students missed more than a year of in-person classes during the pandemic. In February 2021, when the city partially reopened schools, only students with up-to-date immunizations were permitted to enroll for in-person classes, preventing many students — particularly in the lowest-income parts of the city — from attending.
Currently, there are significant racial disparities between those who are vaccinated against the coronavirus in D.C. and those who are not. Fifty-eight percent of White children ages 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated, compared with 25 percent of Black children in that age range, according to city vaccination data.
That trend continues for 16- and 17-year-olds, who, as of June, are the only student group who would be required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend school in the fall. Eighty-seven percent of White students in this age group are vaccinated, compared with 57 percent of Black students.
Bowser said that, even without full FDA approval, there are significant consequences in schools for unvaccinated students because those who are unvaccinated have more stringent quarantine rules, making them more likely to be out of school.
“They are missing school right now,” Bowser said. “Because if there is a covid exposure in their classroom and they are unvaccinated, they can’t go to school.”