With federal approval of a coronavirus vaccine for 12-to-15-year-olds all but certain, school officials around Massachusetts on Tuesday were weighing whether to require students to get vaccinated before returning to the classrooms this fall.
Some districts said they would require vaccination, others said they would prefer not to require them, and still others were looking to the state for guidance. The state, meanwhile, has not formalized its plans.
Governor Charlie Baker did not provide a direct answer Monday on whether he would require students to be vaccinated.
“Well, we’ve been big believers in what I call, you know, incentives, and making sure there aren’t any barriers to getting vaccinated,” he answered at the end of a press conference. “That’s been our approach all along, and it’s been a pretty effective one, and I think that’s probably the approach we would pursue going forward on this stuff as well.”
Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine, which has been available for months for people 16 and older, on Monday received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, an exciting development for many who hope it could bring a sense of normalcy back to young people’s lives.
A CDC advisory committee is set to meet Wednesday to recommend how the vaccine should be used in the new age group. A spokeswoman for the state’s COVID-19 command center said the group of medical and public health experts is awaiting further guidance out of Wednesday’s meeting but “actively planning” for the vaccination of 12-to 15-year-olds.
On Tuesday, some Massachusetts public school districts, including Boston, were eager for state guidance on how to proceed.
A spokesperson for Boston Public Schools said the district does not have immediate plans to open student-specific vaccination clinics but has hosted pop-up community clinics at some schools in recent weeks, including Boston International Newcomers Academy in Dorchester.
As for whether Boston students will be required to get the vaccine before returning to the classroom next fall, BPS said it will defer to the guidance of state health officials.
“BPS will continue to follow the Mass. Department of Public Health immunization requirements for school entry, utilizing the current systems in place like the Mass. Immunization Information System to obtain vaccination records for our students,” Xavier Andrews, a spokesperson for the school district, wrote in an e-mail.
Andrews said the district will cohost an information session for BPS students and families this weekend to answer questions about the vaccine and how to access it. The session is scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m. on Zoom.
Quincy Superintendent Kevin Mulvey said students will not be required to get the vaccine before resuming classes in the fall.
Mulvey said that the school district hosted a pair of vaccination clinics in the last two weeks at Quincy High School and North Quincy High School, but that students have shown tepid interest in getting a shot. Out of 2,000 eligible students age 16 or older, only 140 took the opportunity to get a vaccine at one of the clinics, he said.
“We probably won’t run another clinic because the demand wasn’t there,” Mulvey said.
Students who want a vaccine will be referred to the Manet Community Health Center, Mulvey said. The district has been working with Manet to make vaccines accessible to staff and students.
Needham Superintendent Dan Gutekanst said the district will “absolutely require” the vaccine for all students and staff, with few exceptions, once the shots are fully authorized by the FDA.
The requirement would be necessary “in order to keep our schools fully open,” Gutekanst said in an e-mail Tuesday evening.
So far, demand for the vaccine appears strong in the district.
Gutekanst said 475 slots for a vaccination clinic Saturday at Pollard Middle School quickly filled up Tuesday just 30 minutes after he announced the clinic would be offered to students age 12 and older enrolled in Needham schools, both public and private.
Another clinic is set for May 22 at Needham High School.
“The good news is that our partner, [Waltham-based pharmacy] PelMeds, is going to try and offer more spots [this Saturday] and more on the second clinic date, May 22nd,” Gutekanst said. “The goals is to get as many Needham and Needham METCO students vaccinated as possible.”
School officials in Cambridge said they are evaluating their next steps following news of the vaccine’s approval for students age 12 and older.
“We have been in preliminary conversation with our partners at Cambridge Public Health Department as we’ve followed these developments. Over the next few weeks we’ll be working together on a plan to provide families with access to vaccines and our shared goal will be to make it as easy as possible,” Lyndsay Brown, chief strategy officer for Cambridge Public Schools, said in an e-mail.
Massachusetts health officials currently require students to receive a variety of vaccinations, including immunizations for polio, hepatitis B, and measles, mumps, and rubella. Students’ families can claim medical or religious exemptions; most of the exemptions in Massachusetts are religious, according to the state.
State school immunization surveys from 2019 found that only 0.4 percent of Suffolk County kindergarten students had a vaccine exemption — the smallest percentage of any Massachusetts county — while Dukes County had the highest portion at 7.5 percent.
Last year, state public health officials briefly added the flu vaccine to immunization requirements — a move that was believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. The mandate had required nearly all students under the age of 30 get a flu vaccine by the end of the year in response to concerns that dual coronavirus and flu outbreaks could overwhelm hospitals.
Coronavirus cases in the state’s public schools, special education programs, and educational collaboratives have been dropping in recent weeks.
With about 690,000 students attending some form of in-person learning for the week that ended May 5, just over 600 positive cases were reported to state education officials. Three weeks earlier, for the week of April 8-14, a record high of 1,095 cases were reported among about 650,000 students.
Documented in-school transmission of the virus has been limited, both state and public health leaders have said.
Shea Brams, a senior at Belmont High School, said she believes vaccines should be required for students to attend school next year.
“I heard someone say in school today, ‘Well, if all my friends have it, I don’t know why I need it,’ ” she wrote in an e-mail. “This vaccine cannot feel optional, and I think a school requirement is one of the best ways to ensure we can move forward as a society.”
Others argue that students should not be kept from attending school if they don’t get the vaccine. Health Choice 4 Action MA issued a statement Tuesday pushing back against school mandates.
“All children should have access to school and activities without discrimination based on medical choices or religious beliefs,” the statement said. “Parents have a legitimate, ethical right to weigh risks and benefits of COVID-19 vaccination for their children. . . . Barring the schoolhouse door to these children will severely harm their development with negligible benefits to school or community health.”
Keri Rodrigues, president of the advocacy group Massachusetts Parents United, agreed that schools should work to make the vaccine easily accessible, but only for students who want it.
“They absolutely, positively cannot require it,” Rodrigues said Tuesday night. “If you’re not going to mandate that adults have to get it and not have vaccine passports to be in public areas, then you can’t do it for children. It has not been fully cleared, and it has not been fully tested.”
Jenna Russell of the Globe staff contributed to this story.