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D.C.’s Vaccine Mandate Proposal Faces Growing Opposition

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As the federal government inches closer to approving COVID-19 vaccines for children between the ages of 5 and 11, the D.C. Council continues to mull legislation that, if passed, would mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for District students in public, public charter, independent and parochial schools.

In the midst of continued deliberations, parents like Torre Joyner, said they continue to feel the pressure to get their children vaccinated against COVID-19, even as they repeatedly express their apprehension about following through with it.

Joyner, a Southeast parent of an eighth grader who has been diagnosed with asthma and a heart murmur, recounted learning about attempts by her son’s teachers to entice him with the mention of free AirPods, gift cards and other incentives doled out at vaccination sites.

She said those strategies further emboldened her rejection of the relatively new vaccine.

“I’m already looking at ways to homeschool my children if the COVID vaccine gets mandated,” Joyner said. “It shouldn’t be forced because there aren’t enough studies. One minute, you’re telling people to wear the mask and the next minute you’re saying don’t. You’re providing misleading information. People who caught COVID-19 already got vaccinated.”

If passed, the Coronavirus Immunization of School Students and Early Childhood Workers Amendment Act of 2021 would also mandate annual vaccination of school employees while directing physicians to submit immunization certificates for electronic records.

The legislation builds upon vaccination mandates D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) imposed earlier this year on student-athletes above the age of 12 and employees in the District’s public and public charter schools. It also follows the D.C. Council’s approval of legislation allowing children to get vaccinated without parental approval. The latter option incited fury among a contingent of parents last year.

At the beginning of the current school year, amid a COVID-19 surge linked to the Delta variant, teachers and staff members in the District’s elementary and middle schools expressed concern about reopening when no vaccine had been approved for children under the age of 12.

Since then, D.C. health officials reported the highest number of COVID-19 cases at Ingenuity Prep Public Charter School and Hart Middle School in Southeast and KIPP DC – Quest Academy in Northeast.

A D.C. Council hearing about the mandate attracted various perspectives. While some parents, teachers and public officials welcomed the policy, other community members questioned both its necessity and legality.

In her opening comments, D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I-At large) acknowledged that not even legislators had been in total agreement about vaccine mandates, citing polarizing discussions within the Wilson building about vaccinations for council employees.

Other issues of concern during the Oct. 27 hearing involved penalties for students in families non-compliant with the mandate and how to develop a rollout plan to meet the Dec. 15 deadline dictated in the legislation. In regard to the second point, DC Charter School Alliance Executive Director Shannon Hodge stressed the need for collaboration that wouldn’t place excessive pressure on charter school officials to implement the mandate.

“The failure to quickly and swiftly deliberate on these concerns before imposing a vaccine mandate will leave students and parents confused,” Hodge said. “The city cannot drop enforcement responsibility onto overextended school leaders. Our schools simply do not have the bandwidth to manage another midyear policy shift that requires coordination between different agencies.”

The Food and Drug Administration recently granted emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children between the ages of five and 11. On Nov. 2, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel unanimously recommended it.

Last month, the Bowser administration announced that, after the approval and distribution of the Pfizer vaccine for children between 5 and 11 years old, District children within that age range would be able to visit 60 vaccination sites across the city. Children’s National Hospital also announced the rollout of vaccines via its mobile unit and eight primary care locations.

While children in this age group would receive two shots within the same timeframe as their older counterparts, the medication would include doses of lesser strength.

As of Nov. 1, more than 1 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the District. Among District residents 12 years or older, nearly 85 percent have been fully vaccinated while 71 percent have received one dose.

Amid the rollout of mandates for District employees,  there has been an increase in petitions for religious exemptions, particularly among firefighters and EMS personnel, none of which had been approved by early October.

The Office of the City Administrator didn’t respond to The Informer’s inquiry about how many petitions it has received.

During a call with city administrators last month, Silverman suggested eliminating the religious exemption out of concern for abuse. While she didn’t echo such sentiments, Bowser, in response to an Informer inquiry, suggested that claims of sincere religious belief among people seeking a religious exemption are often undermined by their vaccination history.

William Langford, an administrator at a Friendship Public Charter School campus who recently took the COVID-19 vaccine, bemoaned what he described as attempts to coerce people to abandon their beliefs.

Since starting his job in the middle of the school year, he has been involved in negotiations with his human resources department to submit a religious exemption after missing a deadline he said officials didn’t bring to his attention during the onboarding process.

Though he doesn’t adhere to a specific religious denomination, Langford espouses a spiritual lifestyle in which he abstains from manmade medications and shots, and has done so throughout much of his adult life.

“If I’m not required to get a flu shot, I shouldn’t be required to get a COVID-19 shot,” Langford said. “For the most part, there needs to be a space for people to want to make that decision. There’s no space for people who don’t feel like it’s for them, especially in our community. Many Black people don’t want to get vaccinated and understandably so.”

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