Schools across Minnesota have encouraged children to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — even hosting vaccine clinics in school buildings — but so far district leaders have stopped short of requiring the immunizations.
Even now that all school-age children are eligible for the vaccine, state education and health officials say it's unlikely districts will move to require students to get the shots. Decisions about COVID-19 vaccine requirements are now left to individual school districts, and many school boards have already opted out of other COVID-related precautions, including requiring students to wear face masks.
"Based on that, would they consider requiring a vaccine? It seems unlikely given the current landscape," said Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director with the Minnesota Department of Health.
Across the country, a smattering of school districts and charter schools have enacted various vaccine mandates for eligible students, though many are limited to athletes or students in extracurricular activities. California plans to add the COVID-19 vaccine to its list of mandatory school vaccinations once the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) grants full approval.
Minnesota schools have so far shied away from such directives for students, though many districts, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, enacted vaccine or frequent testing requirements for employees. And some students in Minneapolis may be subject to additional testing soon.
The Minneapolis school board will vote Tuesday on a resolution that would require high school athletes to be tested weekly for COVID-19, with exemptions available for vaccinated students. Board Member Jenny Arneson, who raised the idea, said Friday that it is not a vaccine requirement.
"I see this as a practical path forward to help break the disruptive cycle of COVID," Arneson said. Minneapolis Public Schools "is comfortable being a leader on this.
"It's a very emotional topic, and everybody has strong opinions about what is the right or wrong thing. That is putting pressure on school boards."
In September, when the Minneapolis school board voted on the vaccine or testing requirement for employees, Board Member Ira Jourdain offered an amendment that also would require district students to be vaccinated.
"I think it's the right thing to do," Jourdain said at the time. "I'm just worried about my own kids going to school."
The board rejected the amendment, citing the logistical challenges of tracking all of the students' vaccination status and because COVID-19 vaccines had not yet been approved for younger children.
In St. Paul, the state's second-largest district announced Thursday that it was setting up two school clinics in the coming weeks to help vaccinate its 17,000 students ages 5-11 against the virus.
"We don't control the when and how these vaccines are going to be given out," and supplies are limited, Superintendent Joe Gothard said at the event. "It would be great if every classroom had the opportunity to have someone come through and we could get everyone on the same day. But that isn't how it's going to work."
Gothard said he also would want to consult with St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health officials about whether a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for students is something they would recommend.
In the meantime, he said, the district is working through the challenges of its vaccine mandate for employees and vendors. Creating a testing protocol for adults who have not been vaccinated or choose not to be must be addressed before a similar requirement is considered for children, Gothard said.
The state of Minnesota already requires some vaccines, including the polio, chickenpox and measles, mumps and rubella vaccines, before children enroll in school. Families can seek exemptions for medical reasons or if the immunization is against their beliefs.
At the state level, there are two paths toward adding a vaccine to the list of ones required for students. The Legislature could pass a law that requires a vaccine for all students or the state Health Department could go through the rule-making process to get a vaccine added to the list.
The rule-making process takes about 12 to 18 months and requires input from stakeholders as well as an administrative law hearing if objections are raised.
"The department [of health] would not have the ability to say, 'We're going to require the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 1,' for example," Ehresmann said. "The current authorities wouldn't allow that, and as it's set up, nothing could happen that quickly."
Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440
Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109