Can Schools Require the COVID Vaccine? Pritzker, Chicago's Top Doctor Weigh In

The full approval of the Pfizer vaccine will likely take a number of months, said Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health

Carlo Allegri | Reuters

The Food and Drug Administration expanded the emergency use authorization of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to adolescents age 12 to 15 Monday, paving the way for students to get vaccinated before school begins in the fall.

Across the country, a number of colleges and health care institutions have started to mandate the vaccine, but will schools do the same? And are they legally permitted to?

Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said there's certainly been some interest in instituting requirements at schools.

In a Facebook live question-and-answer session Thursday, Arwady explained she read legal analysis on the topic, and said schools could likely mandate the vaccine, even while it's under emergency use authorization, as the country remains in a public health emergency.

"It’s going to be a big conversation," she said. "I think at schools, really across the country, having a fully-approved vaccine, including for kids, I think is one of the first steps in that conversation."

The full approval of the Pfizer vaccine will likely take a number of months, according to the doctor.

In Chicago, multiple other vaccines are required for Chicago Public Schools students, Arwady pointed out, however students can obtain a written exemption from a physician.

Vaccinating children is seen as crucial to ending the pandemic. The nation is unlikely to achieve herd immunity — when enough people in a given community have antibodies against a specific disease — until children can get vaccinated, health officials and experts say.

Children make up around 20% of the total U.S. population, according to government data. Between 70% and 85% of the U.S. population needs to be vaccinated against COVID to achieve herd immunity, experts say, and some adults may refuse to get the shots. Though more experts now say herd immunity is looking increasingly unlikely as variants spread.

Vaccinating kids may also greenlight after-school extracurricular activities such as sports, art and other in-person activities.

When asked about imposing a potential mandate at schools, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he's listening to scientists to determine the best course to take.

"We'll see what percent of the population at schools this spring show up to get vaccinated," Pritzker said Thursday. "And over the summer, and you know, we'll have to make some decisions about that as well."

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