New Orleans-area school districts are not currently planning to implement COVID vaccine requirements in response to the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine on Monday, officials told The Lens.
Among four parish school districts in the area, none answered in the affirmative when asked whether they had plans to call for student vaccine mandates. That includes the NOLA Public Schools district, which has typically been more stringent than others in the area when it comes to COVID-19 mitigation, recently passing a mandate for central office staff and announcing a mask mandate inside school buildings days before New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell reinstated a citywide mask mandate.
Monday’s full authorization, for anyone 16 or older, set off a wave of mandates. The vaccine is currently available to those 12 and older under an FDA emergency use authorization. A National Institutes of Health official told NPR on Tuesday morning that emergency approval for 5- to 11-year-olds may not come until the end of 2021.
Nationally, the Pentagon announced that it would require all U.S. service members to be vaccinated. Ochsner Health President Warner Thomas said in a Tuesday afternoon press conference that its employees would need to be fully vaccinated by October 29.
The Louisiana Department of Health sets a statewide immunization schedule, detailing which vaccines students of different ages need to attend public schools. Kevin Litten, a spokesperson for LDH, told The Lens in an email yesterday that the Department doesn’t have a timeline on when COVID-19 vaccines might be added to that schedule.
But with LDH permission, districts can set more stringent rules than the statewide schedule. That’s the route public universities pursued.
“Schools/school districts can also ask for LDH approval to add the vaccine to their immunization schedule,” Litten wrote, “but to my knowledge, we don’t have those requests from K-12 at this time.”
‘The FDA just provided its approval on Monday’
Taslin Alfonzo, a spokesperson for the New Orleans Public Schools, told The Lens in an email that “NOLA Public Schools (NOLA-PS) is in constant communication with the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) and will follow their lead on adding the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to children’s immunization schedules, once they stipulate it.”
NOLA Public Schools is made up entirely of semi-independent charter schools. Under state law, charter operators are allowed to set many of their own policies, but they have to follow any district-wide immunization mandate.
Asked specifically about requests to LDH, Alfonzo wrote “our leadership is evaluating with our Medical Advisors any next steps or requests related to immunizations schedules of students enrolled in NOLA Public Schools.”
“The FDA just provided its approval on Monday and we will continue to evaluate next steps.”
School district officials in surrounding parishes also said that they were not planning on requesting vaccine requirements.
“We do not have any plans to make that request at this time,” wrote Alexis Pritchard, a spokesperson for the St. Bernard Parish School Board, in an email to The Lens. “We continue to strongly encourage all staff and eligible students to get vaccinated.
“We don’t have any plans to do that,” Meredith Mendez, a spokesperson for the St. Tammany Parish School Board, told The Lens.
“We’ve worked in cooperation with the local hospitals to make sure that word was getting out about the vaccination clinics that they were hosting,” she said. “We don’t have any way of tracking who’s vaccinated and who’s not. We don’t even know of our employees.”
She said that St. Tammany had held on-site vaccination drives before the school year for athletes, band-members, and other extracurricular participants, but that it didn’t have plans for more drives currently.
Asked about requests to LDH, Ted Beasley, a spokesperson for the Jefferson Parish schools, wrote, “Not at this time.”
“We’ve advocated for vaccine access for our employees, students, and families since they first became available,” Beasley added. “We continue to partner with medical and community organizations to provide vaccine resources and opportunities to our employees and families. From working with our medical partners, we know vaccines are effective, safe, and widely available. This month alone we have hosted over a dozen vaccine opportunities on our campuses. “