Portland Public Schools officials are considering a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for students 12 and older.
The school board heard from local and national health experts at a work session Tuesday, asking questions about the possibility of a mandate and the consequences and benefits that may come with it.
The school board’s student representative Jackson Weinberg opened the meeting by thanking PPS officials for the analysis and asking everyone to center students in the discussion.
“It is our responsibility to ensure that our schools are safe, and our students and staff are healthy,” Weinberg said.
The board also asked questions of PPS Chief of Staff Jonathan Garcia, who shared a 20-page staff analysis on the possibility of a student vaccination requirement.
The analysis includes information about racial equity implications, current immunization rules, and other considerations for a possible requirement.
The staff recommends a requirement “to help reduce the disproportionate effects of the COVID pandemic on the physical and mental health, academic growth of every PPS student, especially our students of color.”
The analysis also included mentions of other school districts around the country with vaccine mandates for students involved in extracurricular activities or school sports.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is the largest in the country to mandate vaccines for students. Students there must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by January 10, 2022.
During the meeting, board member Eilidh Lowery asked about PPS taking action on mandates when Portland Community College officials recently decided not to require vaccines, citing equity concerns.
“If we do enact this, how do we do so in a way that minimizes the equity impact especially on our students of color?” Lowery asked.
Multnomah County Health Department’s Jessica Guernsey said one part of the county’s response has been to share information with trusted community leaders and to make sure there are forums for those conversations.
The Pfizer vaccine has received full approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration for ages 16 and older, with 12-15 year-olds still eligible under a federal emergency use authorization.
At the Portland meeting Tuesday, board members asked about the obstacles keeping students and families from getting vaccinated, including vaccine hesitancy and the impact of a vaccine mandate on communities of color.
When it comes to vaccine hesitancy, Guernsey said schools are one of the “most trusted conduits of messaging,” while at the same time acknowledging the history of harm in specific communities of color.
“The more the schools can be comfortable... to host conversations to just bear witness to people’s process of making a decision I think is incredibly valuable...” Guernsey said.
“The more that we can do that, I think especially with the pediatric vaccines and teen vaccines, the better off we’re going to be as a community.”
Responding to a question about vaccine effectiveness from board member Herman Greene, Multnomah County Health’s Dr. Jennifer Vines shared local data showing that even with the delta variant, the COVID-19 vaccine remains pretty good at protecting individuals from COVID-19. Vines said the vaccines are very effective at preventing serious illness among people who get the virus.
But when it comes to whether Oregon kids need vaccines “to be okay,” Vines said there are different ways to look at the vaccine requirement question.
“What is your public health goal with a vaccine mandate?” Vines asked. “Certainly the more people that are vaccinated the better off we are as a community, the fewer quarantines we have, potentially the more confidence parents have in the school.”
Garcia said the district has not figured out exemptions to the vaccine mandate yet.
According to the analysis, district officials will hold two virtual town halls prior to the board considering and voting on a vaccine requirement.
PPS has asked families to voluntarily submit student vaccination status by September 30. In a September 23 update, the district shared that 23% of students (12 or older) responded to the survey, with 94% of students reporting that they’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Some other schools around Oregon have requested families share student vaccination status as a way to limit quarantines and time out of school.
In southern Oregon, the Mail Tribune reports two Ashland High School students are circulating a petition to ask their school board to mandate vaccines for students there.