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Q&A: Who Can Mandate COVID-19 Vaccines In Public Education?

Accompanied by his family, a student gets vaccinated at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Tuesday in Winnetka, Calif.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
Accompanied by his family, a student gets vaccinated at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Tuesday in Winnetka, Calif.

Parents with school age children know the drill when it comes to routine vaccinations. For students to enter kindergarten or college in North Carolina, they must submit immunization records to show protection from polio, measles, mumps and a host of other diseases.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine this week, prompting many to wonder whether schools might begin requiring the vaccination.

WUNC’s education reporter Liz Schlemmer sifts through the details.

North Carolina law defines which vaccines children are required to receive.

Schools are the primary means of enforcing that law. Students must submit vaccine records to enter kindergarten, 7th grade, 12th grade and at any public or private school. Another state law requires immunizations for entry into any public or private college. Schools and colleges may offer exemptions for bona fide medical or religious reasons.

If those laws were updated to include a COVID-19 vaccination requirement, all schools across the state would have to comply, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction confirmed.

State lawmakers could pass a new law to create a vaccine requirement, but there are no signs yet that the Republican controlled General Assembly is pursuing that.

Under existing state law, the Commission for Public Health has the authority to add vaccines to the list of required immunizations for all children, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services confirmed.

The Commission has the power to exempt students from a new vaccine requirement if they are already enrolled in school when a new vaccine is added to the law.

The governor appoints nine of the 13 members on that commission, and the remaining members are elected by the North Carolina Medical Society. The Commission for Public Health last met in August and discussed a COVID-19 requirement without coming to a conclusion. The commission meets again in October.

School boards can certainly try. The Orange County school board voted in August to require a COVID-19 vaccination for all school employees within 30 days following notification of full FDA approval of a vaccine. The school district confirmed that policy is now in place, and employees can opt out if they have an accommodation on file.

The legal team at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction declined to comment on the legality of school boards passing their own vaccine mandates.

“As these decisions are fact-based and unique to each district, it would not be appropriate for the State Board of Education or the Department of Public Instruction to provide legal advice to the public school districts,” DPI spokeswoman Blair Rhoades said.

At least 13 private colleges and universities in North Carolina had a vaccine mandate for students or employees in place before the FDA formally approved the Pfizer vaccine, including Duke University and Elon University.

That’s based on research conducted by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, explained the initiative's founding director Chris Marsicano.

“There are many institutions, I'm sure that are thinking about it or have been thinking about it, but have not yet announced,” Marsicano said. “We expect to be very busy in the next couple of weeks tracking this.”

Davidson College announced in July it would require vaccinations for students and employees once full FDA approval was granted for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Some public universities across the country have also implemented vaccine mandates. Indiana University Bloomington faced a lawsuit from students over its vaccination requirement and won in federal court.

UNC System President Peter Hans sent a memo to university chancellors in April to say the System did not have “clear legal authority” to require vaccinations for students or employees. The memo cautioned against the possibility of lawsuits.

All UNC System universities have encouraged vaccinations and required unvaccinated students to undergo regular COVID-19 surveillance testing.

President Hans’ memo says all public universities must comply with state law, an indication that UNC System schools would follow a statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate if it became law.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.