The Cambridge School Committee on Tuesday night approved a COVID vaccine mandate for schoolchildren.
The 6-1 vote makes Cambridge the largest school district in Massachusetts to move toward mandating COVID vaccines for students, following the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, which made the decision last month. More school districts may follow Cambridge’s lead; Boston is considering whether to impose a similar mandate.
“We cannot sit by and let the virus destroy the futures of our young people who have already experienced such a negative impact on their academic, social and emotional development,” Cambridge Superintendent Victoria Greer said in the mandate proposal.
Cambridge’s mandate covers all age-eligible children, currently 12 and older, and takes effect Nov. 22. However, it does not prevent any unvaccinated students from attending school, though it bars them from participating in extracurricular activities, school-sponsored social events, or sports. The mandate would expand to include younger children when vaccines become available for them.
Greer said the mandate would increase vaccination rates in the city, which have been relatively low for older teenagers. As of Sept. 28, state data show, 56 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds and 95 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds had received at least one vaccine dose.
“My priority is to maximize opportunities for safe, in-person learning so that CPS can remain hyper-focused on helping every student recover and thrive in school,” Greer said in a statement to The Boston Globe. She noted that the mandate aligns with the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s recommendation that eligible student athletes be vaccinated.
The School Committee’s action does not require subsequent approval from the health department, a district spokeswoman said.
Governor Charlie Baker has said he believes the state should encourage youth vaccinations, rather than mandate them, especially while the vaccines are still moving through federal approval. Baker has pushed to increase youth vaccination rates through offering vaccinated students and staff the chance to not wear masks at schools where 80 percent or more of students and staff are fully vaccinated by Oct. 15.
“We put some pretty serious incentives in there for them to improve their vaccination rates,” Baker said Sept. 16 on GBH’s Boston Public Radio. “And I think that’s the right way to go when you’re dealing with a situation and a circumstance where . . . only a very small piece of it is actually approved at the federal level for kids.”
In Massachusetts, multiple districts including Boston, Cambridge, Newton, and Lexington, enacted vaccine mandates for their public school teachers and staff. But California became the first state in the nation to announce last week a COVID vaccine requirement for all middle and high school students, adding COVID to the required vaccine list along with others such as measles, mumps, and rubella, following the full approval of the vaccine for their grade.
The COVID vaccine has been approved under an emergency use authorization for 12- to 15-year-olds, and is awaiting full approval by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA already has approved the vaccine for people 16 and older.
During the meeting Tuesday, several parents testified against the mandate. One mother called it “vile and illegal,” and “discrimination against kids who don’t get an experimental vaccine.”
“My children . . . are not your guinea pigs and are not property of Pfizer,” she said. “Medical coercion is wrong.”
School Committee member Jose Luis Rojas Villarreal, who cast the lone opposing vote, said he didn’t want to mandate vaccines that weren’t fully approved by the FDA. Member Ayesha Wilson said she felt the low teenage vaccination rates reflected the district’s lacking education on the vaccines’ safety.
“What tends to come up is, ‘I don’t feel it’s safe,’” Wilson said she’d heard from young people.
In response, Greer pledged to increase education efforts.
Meanwhile, Dr. Lisa Doberteen, a pediatrician and Cambridge public health official, said the city’s public health department and the School Committee’s health and safety working group supported the mandate.
“This is the only way we put COVID in the rearview mirror,” said member Rachel Weinstein.
Scientific experts praised the mandate, but said the lack of full approval of vaccines for young people may complicate governments’ abilities to enforce stricter mandates legally and politically.
Cambridge parents Bill Hanage and Helen Jenkins, both epidemiologists, said they supported the mandate, which they believe will increase teenage vaccination rates, leading to fewer people and households becoming infected in Cambridge.
“It’s absolutely a good thing to do,” said Jenkins, a Boston University associate professor of infectious disease and biostatistics.
Jenkins said she plans to vaccinate her children, ages 8 and 11, when they become eligible, assuming the trial results for younger children show adverse effects to be rare as they have been so far.
Her husband, Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, added that adolescents are key drivers of COVID transmission, so vaccinating larger portions of them will help better control the virus in the colder months, when people move indoors where the virus spreads easier. Adolescents face greater risks from being infected than from being vaccinated, he added.
“Because Delta is so transmissible, it’s really a choice between being infected and getting vaccinated,” Hanage added.
Rosie Jones, who has a kindergartner at Amigos Elementary School, said she would feel better sending her child to school knowing the class was vaccinated, once vaccines are available for that age group.
“Every day at the moment we’re making trade-offs, between health and other costs,” Jones said. “It’s good for the kids to go to school, and it’ll be even better when everybody’s vaccinated.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.