On September 23, Chicago parent Shenitha “Angel” Curry passed away from COVID-19 complications after her unvaccinated daughter was exposed to the virus at her elementary school. That same day, Christopher “CJ” Gordon Jr., a Kentucky high school sophomore, also passed away from COVID-19 complications. He was a 15-year-old student, the same age as many Whitman students.
These tragic instances prove that officials in power need to double their efforts to protect young people from coronavirus. In Montgomery County, that starts with an expansion of the school system’s staff vaccination mandate.
When this school year began, MCPS required staff members to either provide proof of vaccination or receive weekly coronavirus tests. On September 9, MCPS did away with this testing option for employees, recognizing that occasional health checks would never be as effective for preventing a coronavirus outbreak as universal staff vaccinations. The school district also expanded its vaccine mandate to all prospective winter and spring athletes.
While these steps were meaningful, they don’t go far enough in ensuring the safety of community members. MCPS needs to extend its vaccine mandate to all high school students across the county who are going to in-person school.
COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the community’s return to “normal.” Students still don masks in schools. Many extracurriculars, including debate competitions, remain online, and many local venues continue to require social distancing and mask-wearing. Montgomery County is averaging over 100 coronavirus cases per day, which is comparable to the community’s situation during the summer of 2020. Hopes of a mask-less, COVID-free 2022 feel laughable.
Vaccinations remain the community’s most optimal way of overcoming the pandemic. The shots significantly reduce the risks of not just severe illness, but infection itself. The vaccines are 88% effective at preventing symptomatic infection against the dangerous Delta variant. Unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely to contract, be hospitalized with and even die from COVID-19, according to the CDC. There should be no doubt that requiring vaccinations for students would significantly diminish the risk of a COVID outbreak in school and would mitigate the effects if there happened to be one.
Implementing a student vaccine mandate is certainly within MCPS’s capabilities — all it would take is a resolution from the Montgomery County Board of Education. MCPS already requires proof of vaccination for several other diseases, including measles and chickenpox; the FDA recently fully authorized the coronavirus vaccine, placing covid injections on the same footing as all other shots. Other school districts around the country, such as the Los Angeles School District, have already implemented a COVID vaccine mandate for students 12 years old and up. California just announced plans to require vaccinations in public schools as early as next fall. There’s no reason MCPS shouldn’t be next.
Some might argue that requiring community members to receive injections against the virus goes against people’s autonomy over their bodies. But, MCPS has already mandated the coronavirus vaccine for prospective winter and spring athletes, and for years, the school district has required students to submit vaccination records for other illnesses. If one were to complain about a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in MCPS, they would have to do the same for diseases that the United States largely eliminated back in the 20th century.
In addition, study after study has proved that the covid vaccines are effective and safe. Declining the vaccine puts others, especially those who are immunocompromised, at risk. It is anything but a personal issue.
MCPS has an opportunity to save lives. County officials need to step up and do their part to help us fully defeat the pandemic.