School districts, parents hopeful for a more normal school year as vaccines expand to kids 12 and up

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Posted at 6:16 PM, May 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-14 16:12:22-04

DENVER – It didn’t take long for parents at Englewood Schools to reach out and ask if the district would be offering vaccine clinics now that kids 12 and up can get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

Parents there and across Colorado have waited months to know when their kids would be eligible to receive the vaccine and what this could mean for a more normal school year experience come next fall, after parents, teachers and students went through 14 months of remote and hybrid learning, social isolation, mandatory COVID-19 quarantines, and constant disruption as well as lack of consistency in their day-to-day learning.

“We think that it's a real game changer for our young adults and their ability to return to school and activities that are just such an important part of their lives and their growth and their development,” said Englewood Schools superintendent Wendy Rubin. “What we're looking forward to now is being able to bring more people into that group of vaccinated Americans so that we can really start getting back to normal and ensuring that our kids have all of the opportunities that they so deserve.”

She, along with 11 other Denver area school superintendents, recently called on state health officials to end mandatory quarantine protocols in schools, which forced thousands of kids across the state to learn from home as part of the state’s guidelines to stymie the further spread of the novel coronavirus in school settings.

“What we’re finding is… when students were being placed out in quarantine because there was a positive COVID case within a particular cohort, that actually they weren't necessarily sticking to those quarantine expectations outside of school in some cases, and then the potential for spread was actually greater,” Rubin told Denver7 Thursday.

In the letter to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), the 12 Denver area superintendents argued frequent school quarantines “caused constant disruption to classroom environments, stress for students preparing for end of year exams, and a lack of predictability and consistency in almost every facet of a student's school experience.”

They also pointed to low COVID-19 transmission rates in schools who put in placed – and abided by – certain mitigation efforts.

So when news came that the Pfizer vaccine was not only safe but that it also showed 100% efficacy in preventing COVID-19 for kids 12-15, Rubin was nothing but thrilled.

“Our kids want to be in school – and again – with the transmission rates actually being so low within the schools, you know, some of my colleagues and I just felt like the kids were safer, and we're getting more benefit being in school rather than being quarantined and having to move to that remote learning process.”

While Rubin told Denver7 Thursday the CDPHE will keep those quarantine protocols in place until the end of the school year, she is extremely hopeful parents, teachers and students will have a vastly different learning experience come August.

360 In-Depth: Everything parents need to know about the vaccine and their children

“We're extremely hopeful that with vaccines being available to a wider range of age groups and students, that those quarantines - if they have to occur next year that - they're going to look a lot different and that they'll be far less disruptive.”

Englewood isn’t the only district excited about the news that kids as young as 12 can now get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Cherry Creek Schools, which at one point earlier this year saw over 800 students and nearly 100 staff quarantined due to COVID-19 outbreaks, also welcomed the news of a vaccine for their younger students.

“What we see is the opportunity to come back to school in a much more normalized fashion as more and more Coloradans are vaccinated,” said Michelle Weinraub, the director of Health Services for Cherry Creek Schools. “The more age groups that are eligible for vaccine and can take advantage of it, the more opportunity we have for obviously decreased cases, decreased need to exclude students and adults who test positive, and get back to that more normalized full time in person learning.”

The school district has been working with STRIDE Community Health Center to offer vaccines to those who want them at one of their high schools, and Weinraub said more opportunities for vaccines slots will come now that kids 12 and over are eligible to receive the shot.

Additionally, Weinraub said a resource article went out to all families Thursday morning to alert them of a few opportunities to get their kids vaccinated as “early as today, this weekend and next week.”

From their part, the Douglas County School District – which moved students to remote learning after outbreaks of the novel coronavirus shut down in-person learning at five of their schools in early April – said they’ll continue to closely monitor the approval of the Pfizer vaccine for students, as well as follow state/local public health orders and the state’s Cases and Outbreaks in Schools guidance as the district prepares for the 2021-2022 school year.

“As more and more staff and youth become vaccinated, we expect that the impact of positive people in the school setting will be lessened due to exemptions from quarantines,” Douglas County School District spokeswoman Paula Hans said in a statement.

What do parents have to say about the possibility of less quarantines, less disruption, and a return to some semblance of normalcy at schools across the state?

“I think that makes such a big difference, especially as we start to think about how many outbreaks we're having right now currently in schools,” said Dr. Comilla Sasson, a parent of two kids and an emergency room physician who’s been on the frontlines of the pandemic for over a year. “As a parent, I know that I want my child to be in the safest environment possible and so at a minimum, knowing that the staff is vaccinated, knowing that the children who are eligible are at least considering it or are getting vaccinated, that's going to make me feel a heck of a lot safer, as a parent, sending my child to that school or to that facility.”

Sasson, however, also stressed that there’s still a whole lot we don’t know about the coronavirus and urged parents who are on the fence about vaccinating their kids to consider their overall health and well-being as restrictions continue to be eased and they come more and more into contact with other people.

“At the end of the day, what we're doing is preventing our children from having to go through what could be a potentially life-threatening disease, and I don't want to underestimate the impact that it is having… we are admitting kids to the hospital because their oxygen levels are going down,” Sasson said. “Even sometimes, if they don't get sick enough to be in the hospital, there's also this whole new contingent of kids that are starting to have symptoms afterwards – the long COVID symptoms – and so we still have a lot to learn. And if we can just prevent your child from getting it in the first place, that's the best step.”

A step most parents – at least those whose children attend Englewood Schools – are willing to take.

"One thing that we saw when we had sent out a survey to our families with regard to whether or not they would want to be back in-person next year or if they would want to perhaps take advantage of online learning… what we heard from a lot of parents is that they would choose online learning, unless there were a vaccine available for kids," Rubin said.

She added, "For me as a parent, it's everything. It's everything to me that my kids are safer, and that our family is safer and that we're safer for other people."