Will COVID-19 Vaccines Be Required in Schools?

Young girl being vaccinated by a doctor.

LWA/Dan Tardiff / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are now authorized for individuals 6 months and older.
  • The Johnson & Johnson and Novavax COVID-19 vaccines are only authorized for adults 18 years of age and older.
  • Vaccine mandates are implemented at the state level where there are compliance variations.
  • Vaccine mandates for schools may be difficult to implement due to state exemptions.
  • California, Louisiana, and Washington D.C. have already announced COVID-19 vaccine mandates for K-12 schools.

In December 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use. Two months later, Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine received emergency use authorization (EUA), and in July 2022 Novavax was granted EUA for its vaccine. Many are looking toward the vaccines as a possible solution to the rising COVID-19 cases forcing institutions—like schools—across the country to close. Now that everyone 6 months and older is eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, it’s unclear whether vaccination will be required for schools.

William Moss, MD, MPH, executive director at the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins, believed there wouldn’t be a vaccine mandate for schools because of previous vaccination precedents. “Where I see mandatory vaccines are in healthcare settings,” Moss told Verywell. “Many hospitals require that anyone who has patient contact has to get an influenza vaccine. So there’s precedent in those settings. I don’t anticipate a state mandating COVID-19 vaccines for children.”

However, on October 1, 2021, California officials announced plans to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for children in public schools. The new mandate requires students to be vaccinated for in-person learning starting the term following FDA full approval of the vaccine for their age group. The mandate will apply to students in grades 7–12 starting in July 2022.

Although Louisiana and Washington D.C. announced similar plans, most states are still wary of implementing COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students and a number of states have bans on COVID-19 vaccine mandates for schools. The D.C. mandate takes effect in March 2022, and the mandate in Louisiana takes effect for the 2022–2023 school year.

What This Means For You

Many colleges and universities are requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for students, and at least some children who go to school in California, Louisiana, or Washington D.C. will be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine starting in 2022.

If you are consuming vaccine-related information, take a few extra seconds and double-check the sources to discern whether the information provided is true. Doing this can help you make more informed decisions about your health. 

Challenges In Requiring a Vaccine in Schools

At this time, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine has received full approval from the FDA for individuals 16 years and older; emergency use authorization has been granted for children and adolescents ages 6 months to 15 years.

Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine has also received full approval from the FDA, though it is only for individuals 18 and older. Moderna's vaccine is authorized for emergency use in individuals ages 6 months to 17 years. The Johnson & Johnson and Novavax vaccines have only been authorized for emergency use in adults 18 and older.

The CDC is recommending that everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Implementing a vaccine mandate is challenging because vaccine-related laws are conducted at the state level, with variation in vaccine compliance across state lines. All 50 states have legislation requiring certain vaccines for students with some medical and religious exemptions. Currently, there are 15 states that allow philosophical exemptions for those who object to getting immunizations due to personal reasons or moral beliefs.

Vaccine compliance also varies at the school level. For example, private schools are more likely to have higher rates of exemptions to school immunization requirements compared to public schools, a research study finds. Exemption rates were significantly higher in states where personal belief exemptions were allowed. Children attending a private school may be at higher risk of vaccine-preventable diseases than public school children. 

Even if a COVID-19 vaccine is authorized in children, a school mandate would be difficult to achieve because of the way COVID-19 expresses in children. The symptomatic profile of children with COVID-19 is much less severe compared to older adults. As a result, parents may not feel an urgent need to have their children vaccinated.

Dan Cooper, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of California-Irvine, contrasts this with something like polio, which had dramatic and visible effects during the first half of the 20th century.

“Polio could cripple children and required assisted ventilation,” Copper tells Verywell. “So the idea of finding a vaccine would prevent that, when you think about the risk to benefit ratio, was very different than for COVID-19.”

For polio, the benefit of getting the vaccine outweighed the risk of getting a disease that could cause paralysis in children.

In a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 41% of parents of adolescents ages 12-17 said that their child had already received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine or would be getting vaccinated right away. For parents of children under age 12, however, only about 25% of those surveyed said they will get their child vaccinated as soon as a vaccine is authorized for their age group and one-third said they will take a “wait and see” approach.

Monitoring Vaccine Misinformation 

Vaccine hesitancy among parents predates the COVID-19 pandemic. In 1998, researchers published a research study in The Lancet that suggested that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to developmental disorders including autism in children.

The paper has since been retracted because there was not sufficient data to conclude that the MMR vaccine and autism are linked, and because of serious issues with how the research had been conducted. However, the published story still holds ramifications in today’s society. After the study was published, many parents across the world chose not to vaccinate their kids out of fear of complications.

While misinformation and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccines may be causing confusion about vaccinations among the general public, it’s important to stay informed. “I think all parents want to do what’s best for their children. And sometimes, fear or misinformation around vaccines can complicate that decision-making process,” Moss says. “We want to protect our children. I actually think the best way is to vaccinate them, not avoid vaccination.”

To stay informed about COVID-19 vaccinations and information about upcoming candidates, you can visit the FDA COVID-19 website.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stay up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines.

  2. Office of Gavin Newsom. California becomes first state in nation to announce COVID-19 vaccine requirements for schools.

  3. National Academy for State Health Policy. States address school vaccine mandates and mask mandates.

  4. Food and Drug Administration. FDA approves first COVID-19 vaccine.

  5. Food and Drug Administration. Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: FDA authorizes Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines for children down to 6 months of age.

  6. Food and Drug Administration. FDA authorizes Pfizer-BioNTechCOVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in children 5 through 11 years of age.

  7. Food and Drug Administration. Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: FDA takes key action by approving second COVID-19 vaccine.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens.

  9. National Conference of State Legislatures. State with religious and philosophical exemptions from school immunization requirements.

  10. Shaw J, Tserenpuntsag B, McNutt LA, Halsey N. United States private schools have higher rates of exemptions to school immunization requirements than public schools. J Pediatr. 2014;165(1):129-133. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2014.03.039

  11. Kaiser Family Foundation. KFF COVID-19 vaccine monitor.

  12. Rao TSS, Andrade C. The MMR vaccine and autism: sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud. Indian J Psychiatry. 2011;53(2):95-96. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.82529

By Kayla Hui, MPH
Kayla Hui, MPH is the health and wellness ecommerce writer at Verywell Health.She earned her master's degree in public health from the Boston University School of Public Health and BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.