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Back To School Vaccines and What PA Requires

The 2022-23 school year is just around the corner, and parents and children in Pennsylvania are getting prepared for the new normal of life in an age of viruses.

With COVID-19, monkeypox, and even polio emerging, school officials are urging vaccinations. In Pennsylvania, some of these are required, while others are not.

COVID-19 shots are not required, despite chatter earlier this year encouraging mandatory inoculations, but they are strongly recommended.

Last year, as the omicron variant surged following holiday travel and gatherings, mandatory vaccinations were floated in several states and school districts to control the spread of the virus that, nationwide, had killed 1.03 million people since the pandemic began in 2020.

The only place in the country where students will be required to get vaccinated against the coronavirus as a condition of enrollment this fall is the District of Columbia. The requirement applies to “all students who are of an age for which there is a COVID-19 vaccination fully approved by the FDA.”

California considered similar requirements but backed away from a COVID-19 vaccine mandate last spring.

Legislatures in 20 states ban local school districts from requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

They are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.

Only about 30 percent of U.S. children ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. About 60 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated.

Overall, about 223 million people — or about 67 percent of the eligible U.S. population — have been fully vaccinated nationwide, including 107.5 million people who have gotten their booster shots, according to the CDC.

What Pennsylvania Requires

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books requiring that students be vaccinated against early childhood diseases, but 44 of them, including Pennsylvania, allow religious exemptions as well.

Additionally, Pennsylvania is one of 15 states with a “personal belief exemption,” which covers philosophical exemptions for children whose parents object to immunizations because of personal, moral, or other beliefs. Many states align their vaccine requirements with recommendations from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

State laws vary greatly in what they require. All states but Alabama require students to be vaccinated against hepatitis B. Pennsylvania is one of six states, along with New York City, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, and Rhode Island, to require students to get an annual flu shot.

In Pennsylvania and most other states, kindergarteners ages 4-6 must be vaccinated against chickenpox; diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP vaccine); measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR vaccine); and polio. By middle and high school, students should be vaccinated against meningococcal disease, human papillomavirus (HPV vaccine), and Serogroup B meningococcal infection.

Will Students Mask?

The CDC relaxed its mask guidance in February, telling K-12 schools they could tie their local policies to the community rates of COVID-19 illnesses and hospital capacity, rather than the total number of COVID-19 cases.

Accordingly, schools are easing protocols to slow COVID-19 transmission, even as the BA.5 variant — the most contagious to date — quickly spreads across the country.

For example, only seven of the nation’s largest 500 school districts planned to require students and staff to wear masks, according to the tracking company Burbio. That compares with 369 large school districts requiring masks in October 2021. In part, the decline in mask requirements in big school districts is due to political pressure. In Georgia for example, Clayton County Public Schools can’t require students to wear masks because of a state ban, but it does require adults and visitors to wear face coverings.

“The goal is to be in person, face-to-face, as close to normal as possible,” Morcease Beasley, the district’s superintendent, told EducationWeek, an independent news organization that covers education and school issues. “Staff are being very supportive, visitors are being very supportive, and many students, while it’s not required of them, are wearing them as well.”

Pre-COVID Anti-Vax Tide

A tide of vaccine skepticism was sweeping the country before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, threatening to wipe out progress to eliminate measles, mumps, and other childhood diseases decades after they were all but eradicated in the United States. The bitterly polarizing issue pits public health officials and others in the medical profession — and a growing number of state lawmakers — against so-called “anti-vaxxers,” who often cite religious freedom, personal objections, and government overreach in their decisions to delay vaccinations or not immunize their children at all.

Much of the current opposition to vaccines can be traced to a 1988 article published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet in which former British doctor Andrew Wakefield falsely linked the MMR vaccine to autism.

His co-authors and the journal all redacted it, and Wakefield lost his medical license over his claims. Though the claim has been debunked over and over, it still pops up on social media as fact, worsening fears of vaccine safety.

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