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‘No precedent’

School districts consider coronavirus vaccine mandate for eligible students

For Ashland High School student Mirandah Davis-Powell, getting vaccinated against the coronavirus was a no-brainer, even if she was a little nervous about getting poked in the arm.

The 17-year-old wanted to go back to in-person learning, get involved in school events and help protect her family, especially since her father is immunocompromised.

“The vaccine was, essentially just a return to normalcy — not just for my family’s peace of mind, our safety, our well-being and our health, but also for our involvement in our community,” Davis-Powell said.

Her comments come as the question over whether there should be a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for children attending school kicks into high gear.

Just a few weeks ago, California became the first state in the country to announce it would add the coronavirus vaccine to immunizations required of schoolchildren to attend in-person learning. That stands in contrast to Texas, where its governor, Greg Abbott, signed an executive order this week banning vaccine mandates “by any entity” in his state.

And just this week, the Seattle School Board, which oversees the largest school district in Washington, announced it is considering a coronavirus vaccine mandate for students.

Meanwhile, several school districts in Oregon, including Portland and Ashland, are considering the matter after several lengthy discussions. Gov. Kate Brown’s office is not committed to the idea, but added, “given that the situation with COVID-19 continues to evolve, we are not ruling out any options.”

The idea gained some traction locally after Ashland High School students Joshua Datz and Luke Seeley started a petition urging their school board to mandate that all eligible students get the coronavirus vaccine. The Ashland School Board responded by discussing the idea publicly, but has not made a decision.

While it remains to be seen what the board will decide, Ashland’s Rebecca Dyson told her fellow members the idea of a student vaccine mandate is something everyone should pay attention to, given what other states and localities have done.

“I know you know this — there’s going to be a ground swell; this is going to really turn into a tidal wave of districts mandating vaccines, there’s no question,” she said at a recent meeting.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Students in a freshman science class at Phoenix High School Tuesday.

POWER TO MANDATE?

Jonathan Modie, lead communications officer for the Oregon Health Authority, said while his agency has “broad authority” to require vaccinations, it cannot answer questions on what powers school boards might have.

Sam Bogdanove, Ashland schools superintendent, has looked into the matter and briefed school board members at a recent meeting. He cited state statute, which says children’s facilities and educational institutions “may adopt additional or more stringent requirements as long as exemptions are included and the requirements are in compliance with the United States Public Health Service Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommendations.”

Bogdanove also noted in an email to the Mail Tribune, “there is no precedent for districts exceeding state vaccine requirements in Oregon.”

The Ashland School Board, at this point, has only discussed, and not approved, a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the district’s students.

ASHLAND SCHOOL BOARD DISCUSSES MANDATE

The board’s study session Sept. 27 allowed the five-member body to sound off on what they thought of a student vaccine mandate.

After joking that the discussion could spark a fight, Victor Chang told his counterparts he would “love to see” every eligible student get the coronavirus vaccine.

“Yes, I think it would help move the needle for some small [portion] of students,” he said.

Dyson, who has kids attending the district, agreed.

“From what I’m hearing … the kids who aren’t vaccinated, a lot of them would want to get it, [but] they have parents who are hesitant,” she said. “I think we might end up with a bigger uptick [in student coronavirus vaccinations] than we’re expecting.”

Chang said he felt that there would be potential for kids and families to game the system.

“I think those that don’t want to get it might figure out the loopholes,” he said.

Chang also expressed concerns with what a mandate might do to the district’s “precarious” enrollment situation.

“Anything that would further jeopardize our enrollment is something we would have to take seriously,” he said. “Some people might just be so bothered by this that they’re out.”

Board member Sabrina Prud'homme said it was interesting to know school boards could override the state on this matter.

While she did not commit to a coronavirus vaccine mandate for students, Prud'homme did say it could only be accompanied by a plan that anticipated the impacts it would have on kids, families and the district — including the superintendent’s office and its ability to function.

Board member Jill Franko said she believes mandating the coronavirus vaccine would not be any different than the other ones the district already says students need to get.

“I don’t see what we’re doing as above and beyond; I see it as the bare minimum during a pandemic,” she said.

The board seemed to ultimately conclude that — at least for now — the focus of a vaccine mandate would be for students who engage in close-contact activities, like extracurricular clubs and sports, rather than the student body as a whole.

On Oct. 11, the board discussed that notion further.

“Schools are, by statute, required to allow the same exemptions — for medical and religious — for school-age children,” Bogdanove told members. “It’s not clear whether that applies to athletics and voluntary activities, particularly those that are high transmission. We still have a little bit of work to do to find out about the viability of it at the district level. But that’s an active conversation we're having with the states and other districts.”

Bogdanove said he would also speak with the district’s attorney on the matter.

OTHER VALLEY DISTRICTS SPEAK OUT

Several valley districts that spoke with the Mail Tribune, including Medford, said it is not considering a mandate for its students at this time.

Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion, and Walt Davenport, of Central Point, were the only ones aside from Ashland who agreed to speak extensively on this subject.

“There’s not an approved student vaccine all the way through the schools,” Champion said. “Right now, we’re working through the adult-level vaccine requirement — that’s enough for us.”

He was referring to the order by Gov. Kate Brown that teachers, staff and volunteers may not be part of school activities after Oct. 18 if they are not fully vaccinated or have not proven they are exempt from getting the coronavirus vaccine.

Asked about a potential vaccine mandate, Davenport talked about the importance of his constituents being safe so in-person learning could continue, but also focused much of his responses on individual rights.

“I want parents to be well-informed about the pandemic, have access to the vaccine, but I also have to balance that with being very, very respectful about individual parent rights and opinions about the situation,” he said.

Davenport pushed back on the notion that his stance on a vaccine mandate may seem to others that he wants to have it both ways.

“We have a situation that can be viewed as treading on people’s civil liberties and freedoms. … so when I say I’m ‘tiptoeing,’ I’m really navigating the rules that are put in place with civil liberties and personal in mind,” Davenport said.

STUDENTS’ TAKE: SHOULD THE COVID-19 VACCINE BE MANDATED?

Datz and Seeley, two high school students who started a petition for a student COVID-19 vaccine mandate, have been emphatic about why their peers should get vaccinated.

“What we’re trying to explain is, more vaccines create better public health,” Seeley said. “It’s never going to be 100% effective, but we do know it will create a safer environment.”

Davis-Powell, meanwhile, does not think a student vaccine mandate for COVID-19 makes sense.

“In a perfect world, if you had everybody agree to the mandate and want to get vaccinated after the mandate was passed, then it would make sense,” she said. “But I believe pretty firmly that everyone who wants to get vaccinated at the high school and has access [and] is able-bodied, then they’re going to get vaccinated.”

Davis-Powell added, “What I’ve seen discussions about the mandate do is create divisiveness between the student body — there’s been a couple of counter-petitions circulating. In the status quo, there’s not really a functional application for the mandate.”

YOUTH VACCINATION DATA

Currently, youth between 12 and 17 years old can receive the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine.

Anyone younger than 12 cannot get the coronavirus vaccine, but a study from Pfizer recently found it was safe and effective. The FDA has scheduled an advisory committee meeting Oct. 26 to discuss Pfizer’s data.

Additionally, the White House anticipates the FDA will soon approve the vaccine for the 5-11 age group and reportedly has asked states to start planning the rollout. There are 28 million children in that age range, and the federal government says it has enough vaccines for all of them.

For those youth who can get the coronavirus vaccine, statistics tell some of the story of just how many of them are vaccinated at the local level.

The OHA keeps track of how many people are vaccinated against COVID-19 by age group. Throughout the state, as of Oct. 12, 61.8% of people ages 12-17 and 62.1% of those ages 18-19 are vaccinated against coronavirus.

Locally, the number of children vaccinated against the virus is much lower, according to OHA. In Jackson County, 45.7% of ages 12-17 have been vaccinated, while 46.6% of its 18- and 19-year-olds are vaccinated, while in Josephine County, that’s true for only 34.7% of 12- through 17-year -olds and 40.2% of 18- and 19-year-olds.

Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County medical director, said that while the number of young people vaccinated against COVID-19 may differ from place to place, the trend he’s seeing is one that is holding across the country.

“It really makes sense if you think about how younger people see the world versus older people. They tend to think they’re kind of invulnerable and it’s not going to happen to them,” Shames said, “so it’s deeply cultural.”

At the same time, “it’s also true that getting hospitalized or dying of COVID-19 are significantly less likely for that age group,” he added.

It might take more convincing to get the younger age demographic to get vaccinated against coronavirus, Shames said, but it is critical for as many of them as possible to receive it.

“It’s a good reason not to isolate any particular group from the messaging for everyone,” he said. “Youth need to understand the importance of getting vaccinated — and their parents need to understand why it’s important.”

In his opinion as a physician, Shames believes the most effective way to get young people vaccinated against COVID-19 is by enforcing mandates.

“What we’ve discovered is, in order to keep your job or attend school or go shopping or watch soccer games ... the vast majority of people will ultimately choose vaccination,” Shames said. “I think we all agree we’d like to achieve higher vaccination rates without [a mandate], but for public safety, I think it often comes to mandating vaccines, in certain circumstances, for everyone.”

COVID-19 VACCINATION CLINICS

On the subject of vaccination clinics, some school districts simply point their constituents to places in the community where they can get doses or have held clinics at school — but for all eligible and not specific age groups.

Central Point’s Davenport wrote in an email to the newspaper that his district is not considering hosting a vaccination clinic at any of its schools right now.

“We recognize the sensitivity of the vaccination debate in our community and strive to honor the differences of opinion, belief and viewpoints,” he wrote.

Ashland took a different approach, advertising for student vaccination clinics Sept. 30 and Oct. 26. Health care partners Asante and Rogue Community Health have both provided those clinics for students after school at different points during the pandemic.

Superintendent Sam Bogdanove emphasized it is not uncommon for districts to contract out its health care services to kids, offering a full-service health clinic.

He talked about the reasons behind the clinics, saying the district believes in preventing the spread of coronavirus and also recognizes some children may have transportation issues or something that might make it hard for them to get their shot somewhere else.

“We’ll host as many clinics [as possible] as long as there’s a need and interest,” he said.

Bogdanove noted that his constituents can have “very strong feelings” about the COVID-19 vaccines, and he has tried to address the few comments that have come to him on the subject of clinics.

“Our job as a district is to educate where we can and to provide opportunities for students that choose to vaccinate,” Bogdanove said. “There are all kinds of opinions out there, and we respect all of our families and we also respect the right of students to choose, so we wanted to give them that opportunity if they haven’t otherwise had it.”