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New Orleans will be the first major school district to mandate COVID vaccinations

Sandra Castro vaccinates first-grader Kristen Cruz, 6, at KIPP Believe Charter School in New Orleans last week ahead of Tuesday's deadline for all students in the city's school system to be vaccinated.
Ted Jackson
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AP
Sandra Castro vaccinates first-grader Kristen Cruz, 6, at KIPP Believe Charter School in New Orleans last week ahead of Tuesday's deadline for all students in the city's school system to be vaccinated.

NEW ORLEANS — As school systems across the U.S. struggle to keep classrooms open amid the pandemic, New Orleans is set to become the nation's first major district to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for children 5 and up, though state regulations will allow parents to opt out easily.

Ahead of Tuesday's deadline, many schools in the city have been holding vaccination events, including one at KIPP Believe school.

One by one, dozens of children presented their signed permission slips, pushed up the sleeves of their pale yellow school uniform shirts and — often wincing, but rarely with tears — received a shot. Then they got candy.

Some said they had loved ones who had gotten the coronavirus and wanted to do what they could to protect their families. Others said their parents decided. Eight-year-old Nyla Carey had talked to her mother.

"She said that the COVID shot was to protect you. And so now I want to be brave," the third-grader said before going back to class.

Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis said the requirement, announced in December in the district of nearly 46,000 students, won't lead to youngsters being kicked out of school come Tuesday.

Waivers for those opposed to vaccination are easy to obtain under state regulations, and schools will work with students who aren't inoculated, he said. But eventually everyone will have to be vaccinated or have a waiver.

New Orleans is a Democratic enclave in a red state, and the city and the district are outliers in the South, where many parents and elected officials have balked at measures to control the coronavirus.

In fact, Louisiana Health Department guidelines say parents can obtain waivers from any immunization simply by citing medical, religious or philosophical objections.

Tulane University epidemiologist Susan Hassig said that even with the waiver option, the mandate is a good way to get students vaccinated. She said parents who were a little unsure or hadn't gotten around to it will have a stronger motivation to get their kids' shots.

The New Orleans public school system consists entirely of charter schools, which are taxpayer-supported but independently operated. It has a mask mandate in place, and thousands of students are tested weekly. There's been little of the public controversy seen in other districts, where parents have berated school boards.

Henderson said the mandate was a bottom-up decision, with charter school operators across the district submitting letters of support, as opposed to district officials imposing the policy on their own.

About one-quarter of the district's schools were closed to in-person learning in mid-January as the omicron wave hit staff members and students, according to Henderson.

Christine Pitts of the Center on Reinventing Public Education suggested that the charter schools' habit of operating independently might have played a role in their support for the vaccine requirement.

The measure is also in step with others taken by the city at large to curb the virus, including a recently reinstituted mask mandate and vaccination requirements for everyone 5 and older to enter certain places, such as restaurants.

A few other school districts around the country have taken similar measures. Students in Washington, D.C., will be required to be vaccinated by March 1. The Los Angeles school system delayed a requirement that students 12 and up be vaccinated after it became clear that thousands of unvaccinated students who didn't meet the requirement would have to do online learning.

But many states have gone the other direction, in some cases banning schools from mandating the vaccine.

About 55% of all 5- to 17-year-olds in New Orleans have had at least one dose of the vaccine, according to city figures. Statewide the number is about 26%. That compares with 66% of 12- to 17-year-olds and 30% of 5- to 11-year-olds nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tulane's Cowen Institute, which studies education issues, surveyed New Orleans parents in October and found that vaccine mandates for students were opposed by 48% and supported by 44%. Black parents and parents in lower-income brackets were more strongly opposed.

About 60% of the city is Black and 24% of the city is in poverty, according to census figures.

But the report's author, Vincent Rossmeier, noted that in the rapidly changing pandemic, a few months can make a big difference. Since the poll was taken, vaccines have become available for 5- to 11-year-olds, and the omicron variant has caused widespread school disruptions.

Outside Bricolage Academy, Renee Price waited to pick up her 10-year-old son. He was vaccinated about a month ago, and she was glad. She doesn't want him missing any more school or having to go to Zoom classes again.

"They get vaccines for other things to go to school. So I don't see there's that much difference," she said.

At Warren Easton High School, Likithe McNeil was ready to lay down the law to get her 16-year-old vaccinated but didn't have to after they talked about how it would make it easier for the girl to get back to school and see her friends. McNeil said she does not have a problem with the mandate.

"We'll never get back to normal if we don't do what we need to do," she said.

But some parents are more concerned. Michel Palmer, who waited in a long line of cars at Lake Forest Charter to pick up her 8- and 10-year-olds, said she is a little hesitant about the vaccine and hasn't gotten herself or her kids vaccinated. She applied for and received a waiver.

"It's up to the parents to decide whether they want to get their kids vaccinated," she said.

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