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We can't go through this again: School leaders and governors need to get creative

We can't go through this again: School leaders and governors need to get creative
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Because of the pandemic, this school year was hard for students, parents, teachers and school leaders. Many children lacked access to full-time, face-to-face learning for long stretches — for some, the entire year. The negative consequences of school closures have been severe for students’ educational and mental health.

We should not have to suffer through this again for the 2021-22 school year. 

Given the desire for normalcy and in-person learning, school leaders and governors need to increase the odds that the next school year goes well. That means spending the large sums of federal money they have received in creative ways to promote healthy school environments this fall and increasing vaccination rates among students and staff. Although children may be at lower risk for the virus, vaccinating them makes it more likely that the next school year is successful.

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Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine at The George Washington University Medical Center, perhaps said it best in a recent podcast: “These (COVID-19) vaccines really work. … They work better than advertised. … If you have been vaccinated and your children have been vaccinated, it is safe for them to go to school.” To increase vaccination rates in his state, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice showed bold leadership by using his state’s federal CARES Act dollars to provide $100 savings bonds to residents ages 16-35 who get vaccinated.

By the time school begins this fall, it is extremely likely that all school employees and students ages 12 and up will have the opportunity to become fully vaccinated. Further, there is a good chance that younger students will be able to access the vaccine before the spring 2022 semester begins.

However, many parents seem reluctant to get their children vaccinated. An April 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation poll contains both good and bad news. The bad news is that only 29 percent of parents said they would get their children vaccinated once they become eligible, and 19 percent said they would not vaccinate their children. The good news is that almost half of parents are persuadable — 32 percent said they would wait to see what happens before vaccinating their children, and 15 percent said they would vaccinate their children if it were required for school.

The UCLA COVID-19 Health and Politics Project is doing important research that provides guidance regarding which incentives work best to get folks vaccinated. In short, the researchers are finding that monetary incentives work best with Democrats and promises of lifting health restrictions work best with Republicans. As a matter of policy, schools and states should try both carrots. Even though positive incentives yield large net increases in willingness to become vaccinated, their research also shows that some people may be less likely to vaccinate when incentives are offered, so leaders need to provide consistent positive messaging about the benefits of vaccination for school communities this fall.  

Further ideas include offering vaccinations at school for students, educators and parents, and offering a day off for students and staff who get vaccinated. And, do not forget incentives for vaccine boosters that likely will be available this fall.

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There is another creative solution available to school leaders and governors — mass purchases of rapid COVID-19 tests that can be made available for students and school employees. These low-cost, less invasive at-home tests will be available in large quantities before fall and can be used by students and staff just prior to the first day of school. Students and staff with positive results can quarantine, which will help keep the rest of their school communities healthy.  Schools should have additional tests available in case outbreaks occur later in the school year.

Even in states where a solid majority of residents would support a statewide vaccine mandate for students and educators, there would be fierce pushback

Politics is the art of the possible, and school districts and governors have the funds to get creative and provide non-coercive incentives for most students and educators to get vaccinated and to purchase large quantities of rapid COVID-19 tests.   

We all hope herd immunity will be present when school starts this fall, but from a risk management perspective school leaders and governors should not rely on hope alone. They have the tools and the money to improve the chances that all K-12 students will have a safe and educational 2021-22 school year. Get creative, school and state leaders — kids and families deserve it.

Ben Scafidi is the director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Follow on Twitter @EdEconKSU1.