We’re more than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, and finally, thanks to the power of science, vaccines are now widely available. But to reach herd immunity—which scientists say requires having 70–85 percent of the population vaccinated—we need to recalibrate our country’s vaccination strategy.
At present, too many people are reluctant to get vaccinated, and too many people still lack access to quality information and healthcare. This is the greatest public health campaign of our generation, and our country needs a vaccine strategy that enlists trusted local leaders and institutions to get more Americans vaccinated.
Public schools can help. With deep reach into local communities, and trusted community leaders who want to keep people safe, our country’s schools can help understand and address the concerns that are preventing people from getting vaccines. Schools can also provide the physical location for vaccines, which is particularly important for populations who lack the time to travel to health clinics. Both of these efforts can advance vaccine equity.
Moreover, schools need vaccines. A successful, sustained reopening of schools hinges on whether the nation’s vaccine campaign succeeds in achieving herd immunity. Schools are not only significantly contribute to this effort, they must.
Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools, where I’m co-founder and executive director, and EquitybyDesign.org have created a new resource to help schools do this. Our guide explores ten tips school leaders, teachers, and staff can apply to help their community overcome vaccine hesitancy and support efforts to put remote operation behind us.
1. Listen to and understand vaccine hesitancy: The first step in educating communities and building confidence in the Covid-19 vaccines is to listen, without judgment, to people’s concerns and fears. The reasons for vaccine hesitancy are as diverse as Americans themselves, and school leaders can use their proximity and close relationships with people in their community to listen empathetically and respond in a personal way to address concerns, misinformation, complacency, fear, and distrust.
2. Pair access and strong relationships with a high-quality curriculum on vaccination: Schools can use high-quality curriculum in science, math, and even the humanities to help students understand what’s happening today with Covid-19 and the vaccination effort. Not only does this inform students, it can empower them to become ambassadors for vaccination, starting meaningful conversations with friends and loved ones who may be hesitant to get their shots.
3. Use quality, vetted resources and set up systems to share timely information: Schools can address misinformation by curating and sharing timely, credible, high-quality information with their community. Schools also should make these resources available in multiple languages to ensure equitable access to health information. If schools don’t have the time to set this up themselves, they can use the School Vaccine Hub, a repository that offers credible vaccine information and curriculum for schools.
4. Run campaigns promoting vaccination for school communities: Schools can create their own campaigns, tailored to local needs, to share important information about vaccines and to combat misinformation. Schools know their communities well and can present critical information in the form of an easy-to-follow campaign that makes the data more accessible for community members of all ages.
5. Use school buildings and campuses as community vaccination centers: To meet President Biden’s goal to get everyone vaccinated over the immediate term, we need to make vaccines more accessible. Schools are convenient places to do this, allowing community members to get shots in places they know and trust. Schools can pair this access with a campaign encouraging their community to make vaccination a family event.
6. Encourage, mandate, and incentivize vaccines for employees: Schools and businesses are experimenting with different ways to encourage their staff to get vaccinated, including through incentives or even mandates. It’s important to remember that mandates may lower morale, so schools should think of ways to make vaccines a positive experience. If possible, offer an incentive payment or gift card, in addition to paid time off, and make logistics easy by providing transport or offering vaccines at school. And don’t forget to thank employees and celebrate those who are getting their vaccines and helping safeguard the health of their community.
7. Form partnerships to address equity concerns: Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on certain communities, and it’s imperative that vaccines are distributed equitably. To guarantee this, schools should look for partners who can help make sure vaccines and vaccine information are available to hard-to-reach populations and communities most at risk for Covid-19—many of whom are people of color. Partners can include municipal governments and local healthcare providers, as well as local businesses, churches, sports teams, community-based organizations, unions, and media companies.
8. Embrace science, inside and outside the school community: Schools have a role to play in privileging science and evidence. This effort can take place inside and outside the classroom, in the form of an expanded science curriculum, as well as an effort to get students to follow scientific research in the daily paper and discuss the subject with family members over meals. Schools should also recognize that some people are skeptical of science. To address this, schools must acknowledge the shortcomings of the past, and listen to the concerns of people who might be hesitant.
9. Continue Covid-19 prevention practices: Even as the country ramps up vaccinations, schools must continue to practice and promote virus-mitigation strategies such as physical distancing, mask-wearing, hand hygiene, air circulation, and regular testing. Schools should also ensure faculty, staff, and students have access to regular, reliable, and free Covid-19 testing. This approach complies with CDC recommendations for everyone—people who have been fully vaccinated and those who have not yet received a complete dosage.
10. Protect vulnerable people in the community: The people who are most vulnerable to Covid-19 have been older Americans, those with pre-existing conditions, and people of color. Schools can help protect these populations by using local demographic and school data to understand who is at risk in their community. They can then tailor campaigns to promote the protection of those populations, and also offer specific support those populations need, such as mobile vaccination clinics. By taking a lead on this, schools can institutionalize a culture of community care—which will help us get through Covid-19 and build resilience for the future.
We will not be able to repair and heal from this pandemic without participation from every arena in society. And schools have an opportunity to play a leading role in the vaccination effort by supporting the needs and addressing the concerns of local communities. Together, we can help the country overcome this virus so that our school communities can get back to the important work of educating young people for the future.
To learn more, read our recent report, A 10-Point Guide for Schools to Promote Equitable COVID-19 Vaccination.