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New Orleans residents prepare for school vaccine mandate for kids as young as 5

“As a parent, I want her safe. I want her classmates safe. But I’m also terrified," one father said.
School children draw on a glass panel during a preview of the Louisiana Children's Museum in New Orleans on Aug. 27, 2019.
School children draw on a glass panel during a preview of the Louisiana Children's Museum in New Orleans on Aug. 27, 2019.Gerald Herbert / AP file

In New Orleans, parents of children ages 5 and older are preparing for public schools to require the coronavirus vaccine beginning early next month, weeks ahead of the city's Mardi Gras celebrations. 

New Orleans will be one of the first cities to enforce the vaccine requirement for young school children when the mandate takes effect Feb. 1.

As the deadline approaches and Covid-19 cases across the country surge amid the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, parents expressed mixed feelings about getting their young children vaccinated.

The mandate, which does allow for exemptions for religious or philosophical reasons, is being met with trepidation by some parents who aren’t ready to get their young children vaccinated against the coronavirus, or do not want their child to receive the vaccine at all, while others welcome the news as a public health measure that could slow the spread of the disease.

Te Smith, 35, an educator in New Orleans and the father of two young children, said his oldest child will turn 5 at the end of February, just weeks after the mandate goes into effect.

He said he believes many parents in New Orleans “are a little nervous about it, especially if you’re talking about underserved schools, because of the mix of information and confusion around the vaccine.”

Smith said he wants to do more research before committing to vaccinating his children.

“Part of me as an educator is like, yes, I think she should get it,” he said. “But then the parent in me is like, no, I think we should register for an exemption until we see what happens to the rest of the country.”

Smith also said he is concerned about schools potentially becoming more lax on other mitigation measures once children are mandated to be vaccinated.

“As a parent, I want her safe. I want her classmates safe. But I’m also terrified. I’m terrified of what that might do to her small body. I’m also terrified of the lapse that may come from having a class vaccinated,” he said.

Because his daughter isn't yet eligible to be vaccinated, “that gives me some time to do a deeper dive and unpack a little bit of how I feel and what I felt might be the best choice, the best decision for her,” Smith said.

The effort to vaccinate young children has slowed since Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid vaccine was authorized for emergency use in children ages 5 to 11 in October. Just 28.6 percent of kids in that age range have received at least one shot as of Jan. 20, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 19 percent have received both doses. In Louisiana, fewer than 5 percent of children ages 5 to 11 have received two shots as of Jan. 12, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of CDC data.

The low vaccination rate is set against the backdrop of the highly contagious omicron variant that has forced some schools to quarantine large numbers of students or switch to remote learning as teachers, students and support staff become infected.

The “health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff remains a top priority,” NOLA Public Schools said in a statement to NBC News on Thursday. The district said it was “committed to following the science and ensuring a safe school environment by requiring students 5 and older to be vaccinated by Tuesday, Feb. 1,” based on the advice of medical advisers, the Louisiana Department of Health and the CDC’s recommendations.

Schools will ask parents to provide proof of vaccination or access that information via the health department’s immunization information website.

New Orleans public schools were tracking 1,402 Covid cases and reporting 4,305 student and staff quarantines Friday, according to the school district's Covid dashboard.

"It is essential that we follow through (with the mandate) so that our students can get the most out of the second half of this school year and to protect themselves and their loved ones and their future," Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said at a school board meeting Thursday evening.

Still, under state law, families may claim vaccine exemption for philosophical, religious or medical needs by completing a form and submitting it to their child's school. All exemption requests are approved.

Henderson acknowledged that parents can "easily waive vaccines for their children."

"But," he added, "we all know that vaccination is the best path to stop this pandemic in its tracks."

The school district did not respond to a question about how many parents had requested exemptions.

School vaccine mandates, like other public health measures instituted during the pandemic, have become a divisive issue. As many as 17 states have banned vaccine mandates for K-12, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. But mandates also have not taken off in states that don't prohibit them.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which had said it would require students 12 and older to be vaccinated by Jan. 10, now does not plan to begin enforcing the mandate until the fall.

Mandates, like the one in New Orleans, have the support of public health experts.

Ben Zipperer, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said “it’s pretty clear that greater vaccine take-up is one of our best public health weapons, period.” 

He said schools around the country have had to close or go remote “because they don’t have enough teachers or their bus drivers are sick and you can’t actually have the school function.”

“It’s disruptive, obviously not just on the health level, but it’s disruptive to all the families who have to take off from work or who have to quarantine,” he said. “So any steps that we can take, including vaccine mandates, to strengthen the public health situation will also help solve these economic problems.”

Amy Tullos Cannon, who has two school-age children, said she requested a vaccination exemption for her 10-year-old daughter who attends a New Orleans charter school. The other is in a private school that does not have an upcoming Covid vaccine mandate.

“I’m not anti-vax by any means, I just don’t think that anyone has been able, up to this point, to give me any sort of assurance that the vaccine is safe for children,” she said.

Tullos Cannon said she was “disappointed” when she heard about the vaccine policy because children rarely get severely ill or die from the virus. 

“I don’t think that the danger posed to them warrants a mandate, a requirement. It should be up to the parents and the doctors who treat the children,” she said.

Children have not died of Covid at the same rates as older people, but they still can become sick, require hospitalization and develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome.

And cases among children have been rising along with the omicron surge. The American Academy of Pediatrics said Tuesday that almost 1 million cases of Covid were reported among children in the United States last week. 

Tullos Cannon said she has tried to inform other parents who do not want their children vaccinated about the exemption form.

“If we didn’t have a vaccine exemption, I am fully prepared to pull her out of school and homeschool her,” she said. “I feel that strongly about it.”

Jon Valant, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said vaccine requirements like the one in New Orleans’ schools change the culture so that people are pushed in the direction of vaccinating their children as the default.

“I think what these mandates do, even if there are these more generous exemptions, is they shift that and they make it so that the communicated expectation is that you will get your kid vaccinated,” he said. 

“But at the end of the day, if a family pushes to not get their kids vaccinated, they will find a way in Louisiana to do that,” said Valant, who is also the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. 

He said given how politically charged and polarizing the issue of vaccinating children is across the country right now, having a requirement with exemptions could currently be a “best of both worlds” by changing the norm and the expectation around vaccination, “but at the same time, allowing for the reality that there are different views on this and that some parents just really don’t want their kids vaccinated right now.”