With the approval of the covid-19 vaccine for younger children, many elementary schools around the U.S. are preparing to offer the shots, which educators see as key to keeping students on school grounds and making the classroom experience closer to what it once was.
Some district leaders say offering vaccination clinics on campus, with the involvement of trusted school staffers, is key to improving access and helping overcome hesitancy -- particularly in communities with low overall vaccination rates.
Still, many school systems are choosing not to offer elementary schools as hosts for vaccination sites after some middle and high schools received pushback for providing shots.
More than 250 families signed up for vaccinations that began Thursday at elementary schools in Duluth, Minn., which organized clinics immediately after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave the final sign-off to Pfizer's covid-19 shot for children ages 5 to 11. Superintendent John Magas called the vaccine a "game-changer."
"This brings us one step closer to moving from pandemic to endemic," Magas said. "It allows us to reconsider things like social distancing and masking and things like that as safety permits."
The Biden administration plans to send a letter to U.S. elementary schools in the next week asking them to host clinics. The Education Department is also urging schools to host events and webinars at which parents can talk to doctors about the vaccine.
Districts that have held or are planning clinics for younger children span from Alaska to Vermont, said Hayley Meadvin, an Education Department senior adviser. Where schools choose not to host clinics, families can turn to doctors' offices, hospitals and other sites.
"There are many points of access, and there's no wrong door, honestly," Meadvin said.
In Ohio, some school districts offered on-site clinics for older students, but Rick Lewis, director of the Ohio School Boards Association, said the association hasn't heard from any districts planning them for younger students. He noted that the CDC encourages districts to consider factors like local needs for school clinics and adequate community support.
School vaccination drives have faced pushback and protests in Ohio and elsewhere, and some opponents say they plan to keep up pressure as the focus of the vaccination effort shifts to younger students.
Sarah Kenney, who represents the group Mainers for Health and Parental Rights, argues that schools should not be getting involved or even talking to young children about the vaccine. She worries about its newness and potential for long-term side effects.
A Pfizer study of 2,268 children found the vaccine was almost 91% effective at preventing symptomatic covid-19 infections. The Food and Drug Administration examined 3,100 vaccinated kids in concluding the shots are safe.
Kenney also expressed concern about stigma against children who do not get vaccinated.
"These conversations and personal decisions have been difficult enough to navigate for adults; we shouldn't be putting this on our kids," she said.
Parents are required to give authorization for their children's shots. The vaccine doses are typically administered before or after school in partnerships with local hospitals and government health officials.
The Chicago School District, the country's third-largest, canceled school Friday to give parents an opportunity to get their children vaccinated by a health care provider or at a school-based site.
In Portland, Ore., vaccine doses will soon be offered in eight elementary schools in high-poverty areas, where families are more likely to face barriers such as access to health care or transportation, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said.
On the heels of California's decision to make vaccination for children mandatory, Portland is among districts considering the same.
A recent board of education meeting to discuss that possibility was disrupted by a group of protesters. For that reason, security will be present at the vaccination clinics, and their times and dates won't be publicized outside the community, said Courtney Westling, the district's director of government relations.
"Schools are a trusted community hub," she said. "Families, in general, feel very safe at these school sites. We're also not asking for identification or insurance cards. We don't want people to fear ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] showing up or something. We are just trying to get people vaccinated so we can get some of this behind us and get back to some semblance of normalcy."
In Hartford, Conn., schools Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said the vaccination clinics the district is planning along with local hospitals will include school nurses, trusted by families. Only a third of the district's students 12 and older are vaccinated.
"We take an equity stance here and think about the access and removing any barriers that our families might have," she said.
In nearby Tolland, Conn., Superintendent Walter Willett said his district also is teaming with health providers, including UConn Health, to offer vaccine doses at school sites for younger students. He said vaccines are important, not just for keeping kids in school, but for teachers, janitors and other staff members who tend to be more at risk.
"They can more effectively do their job when kids aren't bouncing in and out of the classroom in quarantine," he said.
Liz Hamel, the vice president of opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that studies health care issues, said recent surveys show that parents are more likely to accept vaccine information from their pediatricians than from government or educational sources.
"And one thing we found with teens is that most parents didn't want their school to require the vaccine, but if their school provided information or encouraged students to get vaccinated, those parents were more likely to say that their child was getting the vaccine," she said.
According to a survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly a third of parents said they will get their children vaccinated "immediately," another third say they will take a "wait and see approach," and the rest are opposed to vaccinating their children at all.
Sam Valle, a 9-year-old in Old Saybrook, Conn., said he's been bugging his parents for months, asking when he can get vaccinated.
"Right now, I can't go into a restaurant without it," he said. "I can't go into a store without wearing a mask. I can't do a lot of things."
Sam's quest will soon be over. His mother said his shot is now scheduled for Wednesday.
Elsewhere, Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean, Va., will reprise today its historic role as a vaccination site for Fairfax County schoolchildren. And first lady Jill Biden is scheduled to be on hand at the elementary school as another mass pediatric vaccination campaign gets underway.
Through the long tunnel of time, Jackie French Lonergan still remembers April 26, 1954, when she was a second-grader at Franklin Sherman Elementary, a little girl with a brown pageboy haircut and a gap-toothed grin.
Lonergan lined up with her classmates in the school's multipurpose room and, when she got to the front, glanced over briefly as her family doctor, in a white lab coat with lollipops at the ready, jabbed her upper arm with a hypodermic needle. Nearby, cameras flashed, capturing the historic moment for posterity.
Lonergan's parents had quickly signed the permission slip, worrying little or not at all about the fact that their daughter and 81 other second graders at Franklin Sherman were about to be guinea pigs -- the very first children in the country to receive the polio vaccine as part of a national trial to test the immunization before offering it to the general public.
"You never questioned anything," Lonergan, now 75, said from her home in Bryn Mawr, Pa., fresh from receiving her booster shot against covid-19. "We were very patriotic then. The war was over, and the country was booming. It was a very optimistic time. ... It's really hard to understand what is happening today."
But the new vaccination push arrives in a country that has been fiercely divided over mask mandates and vaccination for adults and is now riven over immunizing children.
Perhaps surprisingly in a community about equally split between Republicans and Democrats, Franklin Sherman's handling of the pandemic and the attitude among parents toward vaccinating children appear to run counter to the popular narrative.
A spirit of unity about making the health of Franklin Sherman's 300 or so students a priority pervades the school much as it did in the 1950s, according to parents across the political spectrum. This time, however, it's fueled less by patriotism and faith in government than by high levels of education, including medical degrees.
Parents networked and studied how to best combat the virus, with the common goal of keeping their children in school, and then put their knowledge and faith in science into practice.
If anything, "the sense of community at the school has gotten stronger" during the pandemic, said Parent Teacher Association President Shreem Raminei, whose daughter, Shaila, is a second grader at the school. "I have to say we've really come together and rallied around each other."
Information for this article was contributed by Pat Eaton-Robb, Collin Binkley and Michael Melia of The Associated Press and by Sydney Trent of The Washington Post.