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Ahead of COVID vaccine deadline, New Orleans educators temper expectations: 'Don't expect 100%'

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Aubri Juhasz
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WWNO
A student rolls up her sleeve to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School on Jan. 27, 2022.

New Orleans’ public schools COVID-19 vaccine mandate has pushed some, but not all parents to get their children vaccinated by the district’s looming deadline, which may not even be enforced.

NOLA Public Schools announced in mid-December that students 5 years and up must be fully vaccinated by Feb. 1, 2022, making the district potentially the first in the country to issue such a mandate.

The announcement came ahead of the Carnival season and before the omicron variant became widespread. District superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said at a board meeting last week that having all students vaccinated was, “the best path to stop the pandemic in its tracks” and a way to ensure students would have full immunity before attending Mardi Gras festivities.

But the mandate has turned out to be vague. While all public school students are required to be fully vaccinated or submit an exemption form, whether or how the policy will be enforced has not been publicly explained.

Kate Mehok, CEO of Crescent City Schools (CCS), said since the mandate was adopted by each school individually, enforcement could vary, though she said she doesn’t expect any school to start turning students away after the deadline.

Several charter operators told New Orleans Public Radio that despite holding multiple on-campus vaccination events, thousands of families had not started the process yet.

New Orleans Public Radio reached out to a dozen charter operators, covering nearly 50 schools. Six charters answered our questions in part or in full, and another three responded to our requests but did not share how many students were fully or partially vaccinated.

"I don’t think anyone should expect 100% on Feb. 1 or be worried if we’re not 100% as long as that number is increasing each week in our buildings,” Mehok said.

About 45% of eligible students across CCS’ three K-8 schools had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Jan. 20, Mehok said, adding that the true rate was likely a little higher since the state’s tracking system is delayed.

All of the charters that responded cautioned that partial and full vaccine rates were likely underestimates.

Of Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School’s roughly 700 students, more than 30% of students across the K-8 school were fully vaccinated as of Jan. 27. The school also held a vaccination event Thursday ahead of the deadline, where more than 100 students received their first or second vaccine dose during school hours.

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Aubri Juhasz
/
WWNO
Students wait to get the COVID-19 vaccine at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School on Jan. 27, 2022.

Collegiate Academies reported its full vaccination rate to be 50% among students across its five high schools. While the lowest full vaccination rate shared with New Orleans Public Radio came from ReNEW Schools, where officials said less than 10% of students across its three K-8 schools were fully vaccinated as of Jan. 26.

NOLA Public Schools, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration and the city public health department were asked about enforcement of the Feb. 1 vaccine mandate and what comes next. The district did not respond, and the city provided a statement, attributing it to the public health department, but didn’t give an answer specifically to the question on enforcement.

“Pediatric vaccination rates have risen steadily in Orleans Parish since vaccine approval, and we continue to support schools and community partners with the challenge of vaccinating so many kids,” the statement said. “We are confident that these rates will continue to grow throughout the next few weeks and will continue to work with schools to preserve in-person learning with all of the mitigation tools available.”

When the deadline was first announced in mid-December, roughly a quarter of the city’s 5-17 year olds, which would also include children who don’t attend NOLA-PS, were fully vaccinated. Now that number is closer to 40%, and more than half of children are at least partially vaccinated.

School leaders and nurses gave New Orleans Public Radio multiple reasons for low vaccination rates and many described parents as reluctant, rather than resistant.

In fact, charter operators that responded said they’d received only a handful of exemption forms so far, often just one or two per a school with several hundred students.

Very few parents have said, “No, I’m not doing it,” Mehok, the charter CEO, said, adding that out of the 2,300 students her charter enrolls, only two exemption forms had been submitted.

‘Wait-and-see attitudes’

When the district first announced the mandate, the only firm details given were the deadline and that any family could opt out under state law by filling out an exemption form. But consequences for failing to comply were never announced.

Because the district is composed entirely of charter schools, data collection is handled by individual schools. Vaccine information and exemption forms are collected by charter operators, who are then responsible for sharing that information with the state health department.

Vasy McCoy, school director at Schaumburg Elementary, said the lack of consequences seems to be a reason parents aren’t moving with urgency.

“I think that part being unclear is probably leading to some wait-and-see attitudes,” he said.

For a vaccine mandate to be successful, it typically needs to be enforced, said Walter Orenstein of Emory University. He led the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s immunization program for 16 years, from 1980 to 2004.

Even though New Orleans is ahead of the pack when it comes to mandating the vaccine for all students, Orenstein said he doesn’t think the district is moving too fast given the threat COVID continues to pose to the community.

“I think what's very important is they track the numbers of children who are vaccinated versus not and see what happens as a result of the mandate,” he said. “If coverage does increase, maybe they don't need to do anything more. It's just a matter of what happens.”

Janna Merritt said if it wasn’t for the district’s Feb. 1 deadline, she probably would have waited longer before getting her 7-year-old daughter, Shon’te, vaccinated.

“I’m vaccinated, and I think she should be vaccinated,” Merritt said. “With the date set, I’m like, ‘Well, it’s gonna happen eventually, so I might as well do it now.’”

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Shalina Chatlani
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Gulf States Newsroom
Children play with a toy syringe after getting their own shots at an event in City Park on Dec. 21, 2021.

Shon’te, a second grader at Robert Russa Moton Charter School in New Orleans East, received her first dose Tuesday at a vaccination event in City Park run by the Louisiana Department of Health. That means she won’t be eligible for her second shot until mid-February.

Since Pfizer’s pediatric COVID-19 vaccine consists of two shots delivered at least 21 days apart, parents had less than a month to start the process of getting their kids fully vaccinated after the deadline was announced.

McCoy, the school director at Schaumburg, said the main problem for parents at his school isn’t that they’re opposed to the vaccine; they just haven’t had enough time to get their kids vaccinated.

“The turnaround on when they announced it to when the deadline was, was pretty short,” he said. “I think it became a pretty heavy burden on school nurses, leaders [and families].”

Less than 15% of students at McCoy’s K-18 school were fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to its charter operator ReNEW Schools.

McCoy said while few families were on track to meet the district’s deadline, he expected many more students would at least be partially vaccinated by then.

Michon Wells, a nurse at ARISE Academy, said she expected about half of her students to be at least partially vaccinated by the deadline, but some parents are dead set against getting their children vaccinated.

“I think it’s not just the [lack of] urgency, but not knowing, not understanding,” Wells said.

Thousands of students missed school earlier this month after testing positive for the omicron variant or being identified as a close contact. Whether and how long a student is required to stay home is often determined by their vaccination status. Under CDC guidelines, fully vaccinated students do not have to quarantine after a possible exposure, and if they test positive their isolation period may be shorter.

In an interview with New Orleans Public Radio late last week, Orleans Parish School Board president Olin Parker said he feels strongly that the mandate is the best way to protect students and teachers and prevent them from missing more class time.

When asked about schools with low vaccination rates and the impact it could have when schools close for Mardi Gras break, Parker said: “Every unvaccinated child is a concern to me frankly, and I hope all parents take that step to get their child vaccinated.”

How schools are handling compliance issues

Charter operators and school officials who responded said they don’t plan on turning away students who don't meet the district’s deadline.

“That's a no-win situation,” McCoy, the school leader at Schaumburg, said. “What you can do is make [being unvaccinated] onerous through paperwork or calling all the time.”

Under Louisiana law, students can be kept home from school if their mandatory vaccinations aren’t up to date and their parents haven’t submitted a form claiming a medical, religious or philosophical exemption.

Louisiana added the COVID-19 vaccine to its own statewide vaccine schedule in December, despite significant opposition from parents and elected officials. The policy is set to take effect at the start of the next school year and will apply only to students 16 years and older, until vaccines for younger children receive full federal approval.

While exemptions are guaranteed, unvaccinated students can still be denied entry to school during a vaccine-preventable outbreak, though Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, recently proposed legislation to temporarily suspend that part of the policy.

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Aubri Juhasz
/
WWNO
A student waits in line to get her vaccine at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School on Jan. 27, 2022.

Wells, the nurse at ARISE Academy, said she typically spends the first few months of the school year making sure each student is in compliance with the state-mandated immunization schedule.

If a student is missing a vaccine and hasn’t filed for an exemption, Wells said she’ll follow up multiple times before giving them a five-day notice. After that, the student can be kept home from school until they get vaccinated or claim an exemption.

That’s not the approach she expects schools to take when it comes to mandating the COVID vaccine — at least for now.

“I don’t think it’s right to start excluding kids from school right now because the mandate just happened,” she said.

Wells said schools should consider enforcing the mandate before the end of the year so students and teachers enter the 2022-23 year with greater stability.

McCoy, the school leader at Schaumburg, thinks more than 90% of students at his school could end up vaccinated against COVID, but getting there will take a lot more time.

For now, McCoy said he’s scared of post-Mardi Gras and the possibility that kids will get COVID at parades and parties, triggering an avalanche of quarantines.

“I'm actually less worried about kids getting significantly sick, but we are, across the board, seeing kids fall way behind academically,” he said. “I think the vaccine push for me is yes, about health, but it's also about having kids in school and being able to close the gap.”

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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