How COVID-19 Vaccines May Affect Schools

As COVID-19 vaccines become more available across the country, you may be wondering what it means for your school. This article provides a primer on the vaccine so you can make decisions on how best to protect your people.

Keep doing what you are doing.

While the COVID-19 vaccines are available to ages 12 and up, medical experts say it is not the sole answer to eradicating the virus. They encourage that workplaces, places open to the public, and individuals continue with layered prevention efforts such as social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting, and more frequent handwashing, and masking in indoor public areas where there is substantial or high infection rates. This is especially relevant since the vaccines are not available for every age group and many variants of COVID-19 have been confirmed. Additionally, creating good ventilation can help reduce the number of virus particles in the air and having contract tracing efforts in place also remains important.

The vaccines that have been approved in the United States are reported to be over 90% effective in preventing serious illness and death. Medical experts predict boosters will be needed to combat the new variants. A third shot is being evaluated for immunocompromised. They also are studying how long immunity from the currently available vaccines will last.

So, the things you have been doing to protect your teachers, staff, visitors, volunteers, and students will continue to play a key role.

Stay informed about COVID-19 vaccines.

To stay up-to-date, check your local health department website and reports from your state officials. Many state health departments are regularly updating public and non-public schools with information specific to this group. If you are not receiving these updates, check in with your school nurse if you have one or directly with your local health department to see if they are doing this.  Additionally, many local and state health departments have a weekly community email update you can subscribe to. Some also may have a page for members of your community to sign up for the vaccination. Additionally, the CDC is updating its website as medical experts continue to closely monitor vaccine production and rollout, as well as its impact on this novel coronavirus and the new variants of the disease. The CDC also has a running FAQ dedicated to questions about the vaccine.1

The CDC explained that the vaccine works by teaching a person’s immune system how to recognize and fight the virus that causes COVID-19, and this provides the protection from getting seriously ill. They also said that no live virus is used to make the vaccine.

Review your policies.

Now is a good time to review your infectious disease policies as you consider how the availability of the vaccine in your community will affect your organization as both a workplace and one that serves people. And communicate any updates to your policies that will affect your employees and the people you serve, so they know what to expect upfront.

The COVID-19 vaccines recently became available in most states for ages 12+. 

The vaccine has not been approved yet for children under the age of 12, but studies are currently under way. If/When the vaccine is approved for children, it could likely be included by state departments of health on their mandatory school vaccine schedule issued annually. At this point, schools, colleges, camps, and ministries may decide to begin requesting proof of vaccination before accepting children into their programs. 

You may be wondering with the vaccine widely available for adults of all ages, would you be able to make it a policy for volunteers and participants to show proof of vaccination before allowing them to be involved in activities?

Some organizations have policies requiring parents to show proof of mandatory childhood vaccinations before their children can participate in programs.  Similarly, you could draft policies for adults to show proof they have received the COVID-19 vaccine.  Note: some individuals may not be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for medical reasons or due to sincerely held religious beliefs. Regardless of stance on vaccinations, some things to consider in drafting your policy include:

  • What health risks could someone who is unvaccinated pose to staff members and other participants?
  • What procedures can we use to help prevent the spread of illnesses?
  • How will we respond if an outbreak occurs among activity participants and staff?
  • What is your organization’s potential liability for enrolling or refusing to enroll an unvaccinated adult in an activity?

Be sure to ask an attorney to review your policies and procedures on a regular basis to adjust to any changes in state or federal laws. 

You may be wondering about employees. As an employer would you be able to encourage or even require they get vaccinated now that the vaccine is available for all adults in your community?   

As an employer, you generally can encourage or even require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine to protect the health and safety of your workplace.

As an employer, you can ask employees to show proof of vaccination. However, there may be Americans with Disabilities (ADA) implications if providing proof of vaccination exposes any protected health information. Likewise, if an employee does not receive the vaccine, eliciting information as to why the employee did not receive the vaccine could implicate the ADA.

Employers may be required to exempt some employees from vaccination requirements if they have a disability as outlined in the ADA. The EEOC has provided guidance regarding COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and other EEO laws.2

Additionally, an employee who requests a reasonable accommodation from receiving a vaccine may also be protected against retaliation by the ADA. If an employee requests an exemption because of a disability, the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation. If an employer determines it would be too difficult or costly to accommodate an unvaccinated employee, or it would pose a threat to the safety of others, employers may need to consider whether the employee can perform their work remotely. 

Employees may also be exempt from receiving a vaccination if they have sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances that prevent them from being vaccinated. Employers can request additional supporting information if it has an objective reason for questioning the religious nature or genuineness of a particular belief, practice, or observance. Employers may be required to accommodate a belief-based exemption, unless it would pose an undue hardship on the employer. State and local laws may vary, so ministry leaders are encouraged to consult with a locally licensed attorney.

More Resources

Posted February 19.  Updated August, 2021.

The information provided in this article is intended to be helpful, but it does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for the advice from a licensed attorney in your area. We strongly encourage you to regularly consult with a local attorney as part of your risk management program.