Could Schools Be A Vital Link for Widespread Vaccinations?

Lisez ceci en français.

July 30, 2021

By Stephanie Schorow for the Global Mass Vaccination Site Collaborative

Schools in the United States have been thought as the great equalizer of American society, even if they often fall short of that lofty goal. Now schools could play a pivotal role in equalizing access and acceptance of COVID-19 vaccinations. During the July 30, 2021, meeting of the Global Mass Vaccination Site Collaborative, members heard a presentation on the School Vaccine Hub, which was launched early in 2021 to provide school communities with a central source of information and resources about COVID-19 vaccines from trustworthy medical and public institutions.

School Vaccine Hub representatives Eric Tucker, DPhil, MSc, co-founder and Executive Director of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools, and L. Arthi Krishnaswami, founder and CEO of RyeCatcher and the Community Success Institute, explained how the site addresses what Tucker called the “two Americas.” 

“As the struggle with COVID wanes in some parts of the country and grows in others, what we’re seeing is a bifurcation (into) two Americas,” Tucker said. This may produce a split between school systems in which some will resemble the problematic systems of last winter, while others in communities with high vaccination rates will be on track to better and safer learning. 

How, then, to equalize these two systems? A key part of the hub’s approach is to view those who have not been vaccinated as falling into different groups: “Those under 18,” “Covid Skeptics,” “System Distrusters,” “Limited Access,” and “Wait and See.” “Our belief is that the school communities around the country – including extended family members of students and staff – have the ability to address each of the populations that are currently unvaccinated,” Tucker said.

A school-based vaccination program can particularly address the under 18 population and those lacking access to vaccines. Kindergarten and science teachers can also leverage their status to be reliable and trusted sources for vaccine information, Tucker said. “One of things that we encourage schools to do is listen and understand vaccine hesitancy.”

The School Vaccine Hub has become a source for curriculum on COVID-19, on actions schools can take, and for reliable and vetted information that is regularly updated and targets misconceptions or misinformation. The hub also identifies strong vaccine providers and promotes the Vaccine Equity Planner as a tool. The site also provides resources and support for organizations running vaccination campaigns. 

“Schools need to communicate with their students and families in a host of different ways. When sharing information, it’s hard to have those conversations and it’s hard to have them in a structured way,” said Krishnaswami. “So last year Brooklyn Lab started to provide a set of template guidelines to help with emails, communications, and newsletters and we are now updating them based on changes in the last year.”

Additionally, “we want to amplify positive stories,” so they are writing case studies and other narratives that can be shared through social media, Krishnaswami said.

The School Vaccine Hub representatives spoke of their hope that school buildings and physical facilities – stable, familiar public places – can be used to function as community vaccination sites, a process with which members of the collaborative were experienced. Schools could step into the vacuum left when participation dropped for mass vaccination sites. 

“We believe strongly in the role that schools can play, having mapped them out in all the (vaccine) deserts,” said Julie Rosenberg, MPH, Ariadne Labs Assistant Director of Project Management for Better Evidence, who helped with the design of the Vaccine Equity Planner. But she noted that schools often represent different stakeholders and may be run by anti-science school administrations. To be engaged in vaccinations, school boards and teachers’ unions may need convincing, she said. Mandates are another issue. 

Tucker said that his groups had good relationships with teachers’ union, which by in large support widespread vaccinations; that “evidence-based discussions” and identification of debatable issues can be used in schools, and that “even if a public posture is at odds with what we know to be best, generally educators and most schools have pro-science and pro-evidence members of the community.” In terms of policy, the emphasis should not be on “You should have a mandate,” but rather, “If you want to support a mandate, here are points to make.”

Becky Fox, MSN, RN-BC, of Atrium Health, reiterated the message that schools “are a trusted place of safety” for many and that the school nurse is a figure of trust who can play a role in vaccination education. But she noted that in her area of North Carolina, “we have people who just don’t want the vaccine.”

Tucker acknowledged the obstacles, but said providing resources would help, emphasizing that “there is a probably much larger coalition of the willing who would do something if it weren’t that challenging. Schools have a lot on our plates already. This is the hardest 12 months that any of us have experienced as educators. This next leg of the journey is going to be much more challenging.”

Key Takeaways

  • Schools are familiar, public places of safety and trust and school buildings can be ideal sites for vaccination centers.
  • Schools can be places for debate on policy concerning vaccinations but can also play a role as a source of reliable, vetted and credible evidence on COVID-19 and vaccines.
  • Acknowledging the differences among groups hesitant to get the vaccine is a step in developing the ways and means to reach those different groups.

The Global Mass Vaccination Site Collaborative was launched as a way for stakeholders directing vaccination campaigns around the world to come together and learn from each other’s efforts. This blog series was created to record and share the learning and insights gained from this collaboration. Read blogs from our previous meetings here.