School starts on Monday for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), which is requiring—per D.C. Council vote—that all students ages 12 and up be vaccinated against COVID-19. In addition to teens providing proof of vaccination, students of all ages must provide proof of a negative COVID test prior to the first day of school.
"We're not offering remote learning for children, and families will need to comply with what is necessary to come to school," said Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser in a press briefing.
Though students will be allowed limited medical and religious exemptions from vaccine requirements, a significant chunk of the District's teens remain unvaccinated, per current data. That number is significantly higher for black teens: Though 87 percent of D.C.'s white teens, between the ages of 12 and 15, are vaccinated, only 53 percent of D.C.'s black teens are. For the next age group up—comprised of 16- and 17-year-olds—89 percent of white teens are fully vaccinated, whereas only 58 percent of black teens are.
In many other contexts, a city policy having such a racially disparate impact would be cause for concern, particularly for progressives who frequently measure and seek to remedy such impacts. In this context, Bowser and D.C. Council members appear to be less concerned that these restrictive policies might lead to a disproportionate increase in truancy, which could result in parents being harassed and monitored by D.C.'s Child and Family Services Agency (or even, in extreme cases, locked up and forced to pay fines), purportedly out of the state's concern for the good of the children.
Both D.C. Health and Bowser have been explicit about the fact that unexcused absences due to lack of immunization may lead not just to schools "routinely contacting the parent, guardian, or adult student; placing phone calls; sending written notices to the home; referring students to Student Support Teams" but also may include "making referrals to CFSA, the Child Support Services Division, and the Office of the Attorney General, for truancy or educational neglect."
Public schools have long mandated certain vaccines for attendees, like those that protect against measles, polio, and pertussis. D.C. Health has noted that even routine vaccination rates, especially for poor and minority kids, have been lagging—possibly an unintended consequence of COVID lockdowns and people skipping medical checkups. But it's strange to add COVID vaccines to that list, given that the virus itself is not nearly as serious as measles or polio, and given that these vaccines have only recently been approved for kids.
Though there are practical reasons to want teens to be vaccinated—like preventing classwide outbreaks that might lead to lots of absences—COVID vaccines do a very imperfect job of preventing breakthrough infections. They are valuable primarily for preventing severe illness and death, which already occur infrequently for teens and kids.
Given this, city authorities could reasonably recommend that kids get vaccinated prior to attending public school, as many school districts have. But they have instead chosen to mandate it, which is out of step with the choices of most other school districts in the nation.
This is par for the course for some of the municipalities filled with the most insistent COVID hawks. This week, Bay Area school authorities called the cops on an unmasked 4-year-old and his father in an attempt to get them to leave school premises for masking violations. Similarly, Los Angeles County's public health boss, Barbara Ferrer, toyed last month with the idea of reintroducing mask mandates for residents, before being met with threats of insubordination from the residents of Beverly Hills. (Ferrer soon scrapped her plans.)
Authorities should not, in general, create laws or policies they're not comfortable enforcing; it's therefore quite astonishing that, 30 months into this pandemic, Bowser thinks COVID vaccination is so important to mandate that it would be worth an increase in the number of minority parents investigated or possibly locked up for their kids' truancy.
But that seems like a horribly costly punishment for a debatable "crime" of questionable public health merit, not to mention the host of civil liberties issues raised by mandating proof of COVID vaccination. D.C. officials should think long and hard about whether it's worth it.
UPDATE: D.C.'s Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said this afternoon that enforcement of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate has been pushed back to January 3, 2023.