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The pediatric COVID vaccine and Chicago schools: 4 things to know

A medical professional with curly orange hair gives a vaccine dose to a young boy in an office.

With federal approval of a pediatric vaccine likely imminent, Chicago health department and school district officials have begun previewing their plans.

Courtney Hale / Getty Images

Chicago could receive 100,000 doses of the pediatric vaccine for COVID as soon as next week, and schools will play a key role in the “long-term” strategy for deploying it, district officials said Wednesday. 

But the first place for parents to likely look for doses will be pediatricians’ offices, big pharmacy chains, and large city events sponsored by children’s hospitals, city health officials said this week. Three events are already being organized in the coming weeks by Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital, and City Colleges — which could hold an event for families as soon as the first weekend of November. 

The vaccine cleared a key federal panel and now heads for final sign-off from the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so Chicago health department and school district officials have begun previewing their plans. Here’s what we know so far.

Chicago will get plenty of doses. The challenge will be getting families to consent.

Chicago should get 100,000 doses of the pediatric vaccine in the first week — a healthy-sized first round for a city with an estimated 210,500 children ages 5-11, said Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s health commissioner.

Despite evidence that shows significant decreases among hospitalizations and deaths among vaccinated adults, a significant challenge will be getting families to sign up after an initial round of enthusiasts. So far, only 46.7% of eligible Chicago Public Schools students 12 and up have received the vaccine in a city where nearly 76% of eligible adults over 18 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. And in a large national survey of 21,000 parents conducted by Northwestern, Northeastern, Harvard, and Rutgers universities in August and September, a third of parents said they were reluctant due to long-term concerns about the effects of the vaccine.

CEO Pedro Martinez told the Chicago Board of Education at its monthly meeting on Wednesday that the school district will launch an aggressive marketing campaign for students and their families in English and Spanish. He previewed a video — soon to be made public citywide — showing teens across the city testifying about why they decided to get a vaccine and urging others to follow suit. 

The city’s health department also said this week there could be some incentives for families, such as a $100 gift card for those who are vaccinated at sites run by the health department or school district. 

Arwady has said the city will not consider making a COVID-19 vaccine a requirement for children to attend school until the pediatric vaccine receives full federal approval.

Chicago Public Schools is using basically the same playbook as before.

The district will deploy vaccine doses to four regional health care hubs at schools throughout the city — Michele Clark on the West Side, Roosevelt High School on the Northwest Side, and Richards High School and Chicago Vocational on the city’s South Side. 

Another 16 schools with existing health clinics will offer appointment-only doses and a mobile van will have the capacity to administer up to 100 shots a day. It will be routed so it returns to the same school site three weeks later for secondary dose. 

The district’s interim chief education officer, Maurice Swinney, told the school board Wednesday that “first dibs” for the van’s schedule will be schools in areas with fewer vaccinated residents. A big part of the strategy, he said, will be focusing on areas “where we know there is less access to health care and doctors and clinics.”

But there are several unanswered questions, including how to counter vaccine hesitancy in some communities and how to persuade parents to give consent so that children can be vaccinated at school.

There’s also the question of whether the district should shift its strategy, since uptake at school sites has been low. This summer, officials described poor turnout at its sites, and data shared Wednesday showed only about 3,400 of 155,000 eligible students had been vaccinated through a combination of the regional sites and mobile vans. 

On Wednesday, board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland asked what more the district could do, suggesting that the district leverage its existing clinics that provide free eye care and dentistry at some schools. “That’s something families know — when it’s eye care day or there’s a mobile vaccination truck or van. Is there a way that could be leveraged more?”

The head of the city’s teachers union, Jesse Sharkey, urged the board Wednesday to expand the number of school-based vaccination clinics — something the union has urged the district to do since the summer.  

The arrival of the pediatric vaccine could mean a tapering-down of school quarantines.

Currently, Chicago students who are unvaccinated must quarantine 10 days if they are in “close contact” with a confirmed case. In elementary schools that has generally meant classroom “flipping” so that an entire classroom is quarantined at once when there is an exposure. 

Case rates remain low among Chicago public schoolchildren, and the average daily case rate is 13 out of 100,000 children 17 and under in the city.

Still, between confirmed cases and self-reports, thousands of students are still in quarantine on any given day. For thethe week ending Oct. 22, the last week that data was available, 192 student cases were confirmed yet 3,801 students were quarantined — a number that Martinez said this week was too high. 

He said officials will revisit quarantine rules once the pediatric vaccine is on the ground; vaccinated students will not be required to quarantine.

Martinez said Wednesday that his family just received a quarantine notice for his son, who is in elementary school and not yet eligible to be vaccinated. 

Students are getting mixed messages from their peers and social media.

Despite evidence of the vaccines’ efficacy, Isabel Marroquin, a student representative on the school board from Lincoln Park High School, told board members Wednesday that the concept remains “very controversial” among her peers. 

She said students don’t feel safe because they are still in large classes and don’t see social distancing practiced in hallways or other common spaces. “It makes us a little anxious,” she said. 

In response, Martinez said he thought the district needed a stronger, more consistent message about how it is keeping students safe, by requiring masks, bolstering weekly testing, and having an 89% vaccination rate among adults in buildings. 

“We are going to leverage every medium we have to do outreach to our families,” he said.

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