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CPS debate over mandating COVID vaccines for students needs more open discussion, health official says

kids covid vaccine
Jae C. Hong
In this Aug. 28, 2021, file photo, Mayra Navarrete, 13, receives the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine from registered nurse Noleen Nobleza at a clinic set up in the parking lot of CalOptima in Orange, Calif. With more than 40 million doses of coronavirus vaccines available, U.S. health authorities said they're confident both seniors and other vulnerable Americans seeking booster shots and parents anticipating approval of initial shots for young children will have easy access.

Conversations continued Thursday for a proposed COVID-19 vaccine policy for eligible students where concerns were addressed regarding its impact and weighing pros and cons if it were to be implemented.

According to the policy draft, "vaccine-eligible students" means all students able to receive a COVID-19 vaccine that has received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. The Pfizer vaccine has only been fully approved for people ages 16 and older. Emergency use approval has been granted for those between the ages of 12-15. However, the FDA could soon approve emergency usage for children ages 5 to 11.

Dr. Josh Schaffzin is the director of the Infection Prevention and Control Program at Cincinnati Children's. During Thursday's Policy and Equity Committee meeting, he said if the district decides to require students to get vaccinated for COVID-19, the proposed policy may not greatly impact population immunity within certain schools.

"We're talking about 16 and older, so if you make that requirement for CPS, what is the proportion of students that you're actually mandating a vaccine for?" Schaffzin said. "There will be some schools where it's substantial and others - for example Walnut, that's seventh through twelfth - where it may not be very substantial."

Schaffzin says open forums and discussion are needed to address potential concerns parents may have vaccinating their children. Cases of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the heart lining) have been reported following mRNA COVID-19 vaccinations. Schaffzin says these cases are found more commonly in young males.

"The number will be very low and it's a side effect, and when you look at the overall impact of vaccine and risk-benefit in the context of a pandemic, the preference to go with vaccine is in my mind, there is no question," Schaffzin said. "But for individual kids and individual parents, it can be a very challenging decision and very emotional."

Board Member Eve Bolton noted she has reservations on a vaccine requirement for students to attend school.

"I would rather be much more supportive of a serious effort to help subsidize, help provide, help educate, inform our families of the benefit of vaccinating their children rather than forcing them to do so," Bolton said.

According to the policy draft, all students would need to receive vaccinations unless a religious or medical exemption is claimed. Students who are unable or unwilling to receive vaccinations would be required to submit a negative COVID-19 test every seven days. All student vaccine information will be treated as confidential.

Further conversations on the proposed policy are expected to be held during the board's regular business meeting scheduled for Nov. 15. The policy will not be up for a vote.

Last month, CPS became the first school district in Ohio to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for its employees. As of Oct. 6, 82% of employees have submitted proof of at least one dose of a vaccine. Of those, 88% are vaccinated and 12% are submitting weekly test results.

More than 3,600 students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 within the district since May 2020. Of those, 2,678 of those positive cases are students.

This week, the Ohio Department of Health changed its guidance on quarantining students who have been exposed to COVID-19 in a school setting. This is due in part to the state's "Test and Stay" program that has been implemented throughout Warren County schools.

Previously, unvaccinated and unmasked students exposed to COVID-19 in school had to stay home for up to 14 days. Now, children could return to class without masks in 5 to 7 days if they test negative for the virus.

Cory Sharber attended Murray State University majoring in journalism and political science and comes to Cincinnati Public Radio from NPR Member station WKMS.