Can Schools Mandate Covid-19 Vaccines for Children? What We Know

Many education officials, public-health officials and parents believe that vaccinating children against Covid-19 will play a key role in resuming normal life in time for in-person learning in the fall. That stance has led some parents to wonder: Will K-12 students be mandated to receive the vaccine to be allowed on campus this fall? State policies regarding vaccinations will play a key role in whether schools can require Covid-19 vaccinations in a way similar to how many require shots for infectious diseases such as measles.

Schools and school districts generally don’t have the authority to mandate student vaccines.

But other authorities can: namely, state legislatures or health officials acting under legislative authority, said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a public-health law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

The one exception is New York City, where a 2018 court case over flu vaccinations implies that city officials can likely require student vaccines in addition to the ones authorized by the state.

Some states such as California allow state health departments to add other vaccines to those required by law. But the health department has never exercised that allowance, said Ms. Reiss. Every one of the 10 vaccines on California’s approved list has been added through the state legislature, she said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of colleges and universities—both public and private—are requiring students to be vaccinated to participate in on-campus learning this fall.

The legal restrictions that bind K-12 schools don’t always apply because most public universities have self-governing powers from the state, and private universities generally aren’t subject to state regulations, said Ms. Reiss. But the self-governing powers of public universities usually aren’t strong enough to override state legislation. If states say that public universities can’t make the Covid-19 vaccine a condition for attendance, such as in the case of Oklahoma and Utah, then the universities’ powers might be limited, said Ms. Reiss.

Some public-health experts and pediatricians caution that it might be prudent to wait until more data is available before making the Covid-19 vaccine a requirement.

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