The mandate was set to take effect at the beginning of this school year. But to give more time for schools to prepare and students to get vaccinated, city officials extended the deadline for compliance to Jan. 3. Students who remained unvaccinated by then faced being barred from school. About 14,700 students in the required age group had not been vaccinated for the coronavirus as of Sept. 27.
However, families have been slow to get students vaccinated. The District over the last several months has launched pop-up vaccine booths and mobile health clinics, and enticed students with college scholarships and gift cards. At least 55 percent of children in traditional public and public charter schools ages 12 and older have received their shots — although that figure includes children who have submitted documentation and the actual number of vaccinated students could be higher, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Still, it is a figure that has barely budged since September.
Forty-four percent of children in the city’s traditional public schools are still unvaccinated, Henderson said during the legislative meeting Tuesday. That figure stood at about 45 percent in September, according to the OSSE.
“We must make policy as realists, and the reality of the situation is that the information vacuum created by the pandemic also created opportunities for falsehoods to flourish,” Henderson said. “We have to meet people where they are, and many people still aren’t ready to accept this particular treatment.”
Science around the coronavirus has also evolved, Henderson said. Recent guidance from D.C. Health, as well as other health agencies, has raised questions about whether policies surrounding the coronavirus should mirror guidance around the flu — meaning schools should strongly encourage, not require, students get shots, Henderson said in October.
“We went too far in requiring the mandate,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who with Henderson introduced the measure to delay the requirement, said during the council’s legislative breakfast Tuesday morning. He added that the District is among a minority of jurisdictions enforcing coronavirus vaccine mandates. In the spring, he intends for the council to hold a hearing on whether the mandate should be scrapped completely, he said.
While the measure to postpone the mandate until the 2023-2024 school year passed, some members were reluctant to support it.
“We’re being asked to weigh two things and it’s very difficult,” said Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who voted “present.” “Although I do want to say, that perhaps one of the reasons why many thousands of children have not been vaccinated is because we have signaled that we are not going to take seriously requiring the vaccinations.”
Cheh suggested city leaders work with schools to set up on-site vaccination clinics so that students can get their shots as they arrive for class.
Council members, including Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), acknowledged the vaccines are safe and effective, but expressed concern about potentially excluding thousands of noncompliant children from school.
Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) was the sole dissenting voice.
“While it’s true that case rates are currently lower than they were last spring, this is in large part due to people getting vaccinated,” she said. “We need to be doing everything we can to keep our kids and school staff and teachers healthy and safe, especially as we continue to face teacher and substitute teacher shortages in our city.”