8 to 3: ‘The million-dollar question’ for kids and vaccines

This is the June 7, 2021, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

Only in the year 2021 could the parents of preschoolers be jealous of the parents of preteens.

Yet I know I speak for many parents when I say I’ve spent the past month in a state of deep envy, after the Pfizer vaccine was approved for children 12 and up. Like many of you, I’m left wondering: Will all students get immunized before the new school year? Could districts mandate the shot for in-person learning? Which children will be included in the next phase of approval? And when will my child be offered a vaccine?

I’ve also repeated these questions incessantly, at the playground and online and at my own routine doctor appointments. Finally, I called Dr. Annabelle de St. Maurice, a pediatrician who specializes in infectious diseases at UCLA. I wanted to know: When can my 5-year-old get Pfizer, Moderna or J&J?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” she told me. “There’s a very strong interest in having these vaccines approved before the school year starts, but I’m not sure how realistic that is.”

To recap: It is entirely possible that the first COVID vaccines for young children could be granted emergency-use authorization in time for the 2021-22 school year. It is also entirely possible they may not be. It is likely, though far from guaranteed, that such approval would extend all the way down to 6-month-old infants, the youngest children in vaccine trials right now. It is also possible it will extend only to preschoolers, or even school-aged children.

What we know for certain is that there is great hope pinned to Labor Day. In de St. Maurice’s opinion, the most significant threat to that hope may be the simultaneous push for full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Right now, all three COVID vaccines have emergency-use authorization, a temporary dispensation given to some drugs that have not yet been approved by the FDA. This authorization can be given at the end of phase 2 trials, rather than at the end of phase 3.

“The FDA is also focusing on licensing these vaccines for other age groups,” which could divert resources from an emergency-use authorization in younger children, de St. Maurice explained. “There may be some difference in opinion in how young to authorize it. But thus far what we’ve seen seems to show it’s safe and effective in all age groups, so I’m hopeful it will be authorized down to 6 months.”

Although many California universities will require proof of immunization for the fall, a similar K-12 mandate would be functionally impossible under emergency-use authorization, the expert said. Still, the Los Angeles Unified School District is working hard to ensure all eligible children have access to the vaccine as soon as possible, and eventually, it’s likely the COVID vaccines will join MMR and Hib and DTaP among the routine childhood immunizations that mark annual physicals and well-baby visits.

Not everyone will be pleased by this. Indeed, it might not make anyone happy. Parents in L.A. can be divided into roughly three groups, de St. Maurice told me: those itching for approval, those who are hesitant and those who would prefer their young children not get the vaccine.

“Some people want to know, ‘How soon can I get it?’ Others are asking, ‘If my child already had COVID, should they get it?’ And some wonder about the utility of vaccinating,” the doctor said.

I’ll be the first to admit, my position is informed as much by emotion as logic. I will be sick and disabled for the rest of my life from a rare complication of a vaccine-preventable illness I caught as a child — a disease that could have been prevented by an existing vaccine, at a time that vaccine wasn’t given to children. When my son was an infant, I went rounds with the pediatrician over inoculations that are given sooner in Europe than here. Why couldn’t he have them? Chronic illness is not a fate worse than death, as it’s sometimes been framed in the case of long COVID. But it’s also not a fate I would choose for my kid.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are parents who feel that the risk to kids from COVID is so minute that the risk associated with vaccination actually outweighs it. (To be clear, the vaccine trials for children are massive and rigorous, and there’s no evidence of any increased risk so far.) As we’ve reported, COVID can look like a runny nose or a day of diarrhea in youngsters. Still others can be totally asymptomatic, even in the extremely rare case of those who go on to develop MIS-C. The flu-like symptoms many of us experienced after our inoculations may seem worse than a dose of the real thing.

That’s why “it’s really important to test this in all these age groups, to get the confidence of parents,” de St. Maurice said. That testing is part of why we don’t have approval already, a fact that makes moms like me more neurotic.

Finally, there are those in the middle — parents whose children may have already had COVID, and who doubt the necessity of vaccinating them when they have natural immunity. After all, most of us never got a chickenpox vaccine.

Depending on your age, you may never have been offered shots for HPV or hepatitis or meningitis or pneumonia, because those weren’t approved or added to the schedule until you were past the age when kids now receive them. The main difference is that those diseases have been studied in people for generations, while SARS-CoV-2 had not yet made the jump to humans before December of 2019. Experts say people who’ve had COVID should still definitely get the jab.

Just Monday, a report came out showing that when unvaccinated elementary-school children mask up and maintain some distance from one another over the course of the school day, a single infected child will likely pass the infection to fewer than one other student, on average, over the course of 30 days. Without masks and distancing, that figure roughly doubles — still not terrible, but enough to be a concern.

Regardless of how you feel about vaccinating your kids, it’s likely the age split is already affecting your day-to-day interactions. My husband and I recently hosted a picnic for our 10-year wedding anniversary, where vaccinated adults noshed and schmoozed bare-faced, while the kids kept their masks on. Since Pfizer was extended to 12-year-olds, our synagogue is once again hosting bar mitzvahs, yet the space for younger kids is strictly limited. And though my husband returned to flying for work as soon as his second shot took effect, even our modest summer plans are circumscribed by (perhaps excessive) caution around airplanes and other shared spaces. It’s likely that the same social norms that have applied to unvaccinated people generally will still apply to kids until a lot more of them have been inoculated.

Finally, as I wrote a few weeks ago, our until-recently cloistered kids are once again bringing home viral illnesses. While COVID is typically mild and less likely to pass among younger children, the opposite is true of influenza and other upper respiratory illnesses, which small children circulate much more readily, and can suffer much more severely, than either grown ups or older kids. That may be the best argument for vaccinating small children against COVID — we simply don’t know yet how these viruses interact in the same tiny person.

As children go back to school we could some increases in things like flu,” de St. Maurice said. “We definitely don’t want our children getting both flu and COVID.”

Boosting parent voices

Parents, teachers and school administrators have a lot of common interests and goals. They also have individual priorities that aren’t always in sync. These divisions were powerfully highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and my colleague Howard Blume wrote this past week about a new effort by parents to increase their influence in the drafting of education policy. The group OpenSchoolsCA was created to push for reopening schools that were closed during the pandemic; now its leaders have created a nonprofit foundation that is intended to give parents a louder voice to influence schools.

“As one of the tens of thousands of California moms who stepped back from the workforce to care for my school-age children, working moms must never be the default option for closed schools,” said Megan Bacigalupi, the founding parent and executive director of the new group. “Parent voices and student interests should never again be ignored or deprioritized as they have been during this year. Parents and kids must have a seat at the table.”

Meanwhile, as parents of high school students are acutely aware, we’ve just segued from prom season to graduation season — and both are like nothing seen before. But they are happening, often at live events, in sharp contrast to a year ago. The Times’ Melissa Gomez checked out some of the proms, along with a team of Times photographers; their coverage is here. The New York Times did something similar at four California high schools in Hesperia, Goleta, Petaluma and Fowler.

Way up north in Redding, the Record-Searchlight newspaper put together some photo galleries from seven graduation ceremonies around Shasta County. If they look familiar, that’s because they were a lot like high school graduations in the Before Time.

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‘We’re hoping that excuse has been eliminated’

Counselors and nurses have long been in short supply in California public schools. But with a public health crisis reshaping how we think about education, there has been a renewed focus on the importance of these positions, which prioritize the mental and physical health of students. Reporter Kristen Taketa at our sibling newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, wrote about an effort in San Diego to use some of the windfall in state funding to beef up the corps of counselors and nurses.

“A lot of times the district has said, ‘Oh, we don’t have the money for it,’” said Kisha Borden, president of the San Diego Unified teachers union. “So now we’re hoping that excuse has been eliminated.”

The education nonprofit EdSource has come up with a nifty chart of just how that funding windfall is going to be distributed. L.A. Unified alone is getting an extra $4.7 billion from a variety of sources. That works out to more than $11,000 per pupil.

Despite the funding bonanza, nobody is going to argue that the COVID pandemic was a net positive, or anything close to one. Still, there are some silver linings, slender though they might be. Here’s another, courtesy of the education team at KQED-TV in San Francisco: The pandemic jolted us out of our complacency and may have given teachers a chance to hone some previously undeveloped skills — like using Zoom. “I’m just glad teachers know how to use technology better now,” said Edward Huang, a senior at San Mateo High School.

Finally, there’s this story from Lionel Mares, a graduate student at Cal State Northridge, who writes in LAist about his childhood in an immigrant family and why he never felt like he belonged — anywhere. The title of his essay sums up the conundrum, which is familiar to many California students: “When You’re Seen As Too ‘White’ In High School, And Too Brown In College.”

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