Will Schools Require the COVID Vaccine for Eligible Kids?

Will Schools Require the COVID Vaccine for Eligible Kids?

By Kristine Bowman

With the first COVID-19 vaccine now authorized for adolescents, ages 12 and up, a big question looms: Will students be required to get the vaccine before returning to their classrooms in the fall?

As a professor of education policy and law and a former attorney for school districts, I regularly think about this sort of question.

In the United States, school vaccination requirements are established by states rather than the federal government. The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows states to make regulations protecting public health.

Every state currently requires K-12 students to be vaccinated against some diseases, although the requirements—including which shots are deemed necessary and the reasons students can opt out—vary from one state to another.

Who can opt out of school shots?

No state yet requires students to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but how states manage other vaccines and exemptions, and how the rules can change during outbreaks, can help us think about how a COVID-19 vaccine requirement might work.

For example, students in all states can be exempt from vaccination requirements if they have a valid medical reason, such as a weakened immune system or allergic reaction to a vaccine.

In 44 states, students also can opt out of vaccination requirements for religious reasons, though most major religions do not prohibit vaccines. Some states are considering rescinding religious exemptions because of concern about declining levels of vaccinations and local outbreaks of diseases such as measles. Connecticut rescinded its religious exemption in April 2021.

Fifteen states permit philosophical exemptions based on moral or ethical concerns. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 2.5% of U.S. kindergartners used an exemption last year, the same as the previous year, and most were for religious or philosophical reasons.

Of particular importance right now is that states also take different approaches to exemptions during an outbreak. Thirty-two states ban unvaccinated students from attending school during an outbreak. A handful of states do not allow vaccine exemptions during an outbreak.

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