As Schools Reopen, Biden Administration Launches Broad Effort to Get More Students Vaccinated

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited a summer learning program at Graceland Park-O’Donnell Heights Elementary Middle School in Baltimore to discuss the education department’s new “Return-to-School Roadmap.” (U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona Twitter)

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Updated August 6

The Biden administration Thursday stepped up efforts to get more students vaccinated as the school year begins, announcing partnerships with the National PTA, pediatricians and sports organizations to reach reluctant families.

The effort includes incorporating vaccines into physical exams for school athletes, featuring pediatricians at back-to-school events and supplying schools with resources to host pop-up vaccine clinics, including sample text messages and letters. Saturday will kick off a “week of action” devoted to promoting the vaccine, with Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visiting a vaccine clinic in Topeka, Kansas, along with training sessions for parents, teachers and student organizations on how to promote vaccines.

“I remember last year. We were reopening schools and we didn’t have the science. We didn’t have the experience. We didn’t have the lessons learned,” Cardona said Wednesday in remarks after visiting a summer enrichment program at Graceland Park-O’Donnell Heights Elementary Middle School in Baltimore. “If you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, do it now. This is our number one line of defense.”

On Thursday, Cardona told reporters that he’ll also be monitoring how “politics are getting in the way” and whether some families aren’t sending their children to school because they feel it’s not safe without mask requirements.  “To me those are adult actions preventing students to their right of public education.”

That message comes as less than 40 percent of the nation’s 12- to 15-year-olds have been vaccinated, data shows. And the rate among 16- and 17-year-olds is less than half. Vaccination rates are higher among white children than Black children. The administration, however, is not only facing resistance from some parents toward the vaccine, but is also seeing growing backlash against mask mandates, with some districts at odds with governors over the issue.

The dissent was clear last week during a virtual town hall for parents where Aaliyah Samuel, a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attempted to answer parents’ questions about the vaccine.

Participants began flooding the chat field with critical comments about the vaccine, remote learning and masks. Others shot back with links to studies on vaccine and mask effectiveness.

In all caps, one person wrote: “Hesitancy comes from the lies and lack of information. Those that have been vaccinated are the ones that are getting infected yet again, creating new variants such as Delta strain.”

Another responded: “Trump paid for the vaccine and took it.”

Samuel eventually jumped in and shut down the chat function.

“This is not a place for negative comments to attack individuals. It is a place to share information,” she said. “And if you don’t believe in the information, that’s your choice, but we’re sharing the best of the information that we have.”

At last week’s parent town hall, organized by the U.S. Department of Education, along with two national parent groups, participants clashed over issues including masks and vaccines.  (U.S. Department of Education)

Thursday’s White House announcement didn’t mention the role of the teachers unions in getting more students vaccinated. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has been on her own campaign this week to encourage parents to send their children to school this fall, while also advocating for a universal mask mandate.

In comments on SiriusXM POTUS’s “Laura Coates Show” this week, Weingarten called vaccines “the big game changer.” While restating her position that vaccine issues should be negotiated with local affiliates, she said on MSNBC Thursday that she is now more open to mandates for teachers.

“We want to persuade the holdouts,” she said. “But we’re looking at all the alternatives.”

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