CHEYENNE, Wyo. — There were no cheery signs urging “Get your Covid-19 vaccine!” at the back-to-school immunization clinic at Carey Junior High School last week. In the sun-drenched cafeteria, Valencia Bautista sat behind a folding table in a corner, delivering a decidedly soft sell.
Hundreds of 12- and 13-year-olds streamed through with their parents to pick up their fall schedules and iPads. Ms. Bautista, a county public health nurse, wore a T-shirt that said “Vaccinated. Thanks, Public Health” and offered vaccines against ailments like tetanus and meningitis, while broaching the subject of Covid shots gently — and last.
By day’s end, she had 11 takers. “If they’re a no, we won’t push it,” she said.
Vaccination rates among middle and high school students need to rise drastically if the United States is going to achieve what are arguably the two most important goals in addressing the pandemic in the country right now: curbing the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant and safely reopening schools. President Biden told school districts to hold vaccination clinics, but that is putting superintendents and principals — many of whom are already at the center of furious local battles over masking — in a delicate position.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is authorized for people 12 and older, but administering it to anyone younger than 18 usually requires parental consent, and getting shots into the arms of teenagers has proved harder than vaccinating adults. Only 33 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds and 43 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, according to federal data, compared with 62 percent of adults. Yet some school districts offering the shots, along with pediatrics practices, appear to be making progress: Over the past month, the average daily number of 12- to 15-year-olds being vaccinated rose 75 percent, according to Biden administration officials.
As the school year begins, many superintendents do not know how many of their students are vaccinated against Covid-19; because it is not required, they do not ask.
It is no surprise that nurses like Ms. Bautista are circumspect in their approach. In Tennessee, the state’s top immunization leader, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, said she was fired last month after she distributed a memo that suggested some teenagers might be eligible for vaccinations without their parents’ consent.
In Detroit, where county health officials have been running school-based clinics all summer, nurses discovered “strong hesitancy” when they made more than 10,000 calls to parents of students 12 and older to ask whether their children would get the shots and answer questions about them, said the deputy superintendent, Alycia Meriweather. More than half said no.
In Georgia, Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools held their back-to-school clinic at the mall — a “neutral location,” said M. Ann Levett, the superintendent. She is also planning school-based clinics, she said, despite some political pushback and “Facebook chatter” accusing her of “pushing the vaccine on kids.”
Ms. Levett said she was deeply concerned about whether she would be able to keep schools open.
“This is only the second day of school, and already we have positive cases among children,” she said in a recent interview. Her district has a mask mandate, but with 37,000 students, “I just introduced 37,000 more opportunities for the numbers to rise.”
In Laramie County, the center of the Delta surge in Wyoming, the Health Department proposed back-to-school clinics to Janet Farmer, the head nurse in the larger of the county’s two school districts. Ms. Farmer knew she would have to tread carefully. The flier she drafted for parents of students at the county’s three middle schools made little mention of Covid-19.
“Vaccines — NOT Mandatory,” it declared.
Nationally, more children are hospitalized with Covid-19 — an average of 276 each day — than at any other point in the pandemic. In Laramie County, Dr. Andrew B. Rose, a pediatrician at the Cheyenne Children’s Clinic and the president of Wyoming’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said two newborns — one a few days old, the other younger than two weeks — were recently admitted to the hospital with Covid-19 symptoms after their parents tested positive.
Wyoming, a heavily Republican state where nearly 70 percent of voters cast their ballots for former President Donald J. Trump in 2020, has one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates, with about a third of its population fully vaccinated. Laramie County has about 100,000 people and Cheyenne, the state capital, which bills itself as “home to all things Western” including “rodeos, ranches, gunslingers” and eight-foot-tall cowboy boots.
At Casey Junior High, few children or adults wore masks at the recent clinic, despite a sign on the door saying they were “strongly recommended.” Parents seemed to have visceral reactions; they were either enthusiastic about the Covid shot or adamantly against it. Those who were wavering were few and far between, and not easy to persuade.
A nurse in blue scrubs and her husband, a nuclear and missile operations officer at the nearby Air Force base, who declined to give their names, wandered past Ms. Bautista’s table with their 12-year-old son. Their daughter, 13, has cystic fibrosis and is vaccinated. But their son was reluctant. They chatted amiably with Ms. Bautista, but decided to wait.
Cheyenne Gower, 28, and her stepson Jaxson Fox, 12, both said they were leaning toward getting the shot after talking with their doctors. Ms. Gower, citing the Delta surge, said she would get vaccinated soon. Jaxson said he was “still thinking about it” after his pediatrician discussed the risk of heart inflammation, a very rare side effect seen in young boys ages 12 to 17.
“Put down that I’m more on the getting it side,” he instructed, eyeing a reporter’s notebook.
Although the vaccines were tested on tens of thousands of people and have been administered to nearly 200 million in the United States alone, many parents cited a lack of research in refusing. Aubrea Valencia, 29, a hair stylist, listened carefully as Ms. Bautista explained the reasons for the human papilloma virus and meningitis vaccines. Ms. Valencia agreed that her daughter should take both.
But when it came to the coronavirus vaccine, she drew the line. “The other two have been around longer,” she said, adding that she might feel “different about it if we had known someone who died” from the coronavirus.
Every once in a while, the nurses encountered a surprise, as when Kristen Simmons, 43, a professional dog handler, marched up with her son, Trent.
“He turned 12 on Monday, and so we want to get his Covid vaccine,” she declared. Ms. Bautista and the other nurses looked stunned.
“We tend to be more liberal,” Ms. Simmons later said — a statement that would have sounded odd in explaining a medical decision before the pandemic.
In the spring, when vaccines were limited to older Americans who were clamoring for them, officials including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the top U.S. infectious diseases expert, envisioned fall 2021 as the last mile of a campaign that could produce “herd immunity” by year’s end. Vaccinating children was crucial to that plan.
Now it is clear that will not happen. Children ages 11 and under are not yet eligible, but if and when the vaccine is authorized for them, experts expect it could be harder to persuade their parents than those of older children. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that parents of younger children were “generally more likely to be hesitant to vaccinating,” said Liz Hamel, who directed the research.
Understand the State of Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- Vaccine rules . . . and businesses. Private companies are increasingly mandating coronavirus vaccines for employees, with varying approaches. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. On Aug. 11, California announced that it would require teachers and staff of both public and private schools to be vaccinated or face regular testing, the first state in the nation to do so. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York. On Aug. 3, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York announced that proof of vaccination would be required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, becoming the first U.S. city to require vaccines for a broad range of activities. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
For school superintendents and public health officials who are intent on bringing students back to the classroom — and keeping them there — the low vaccination rates, coupled with the Delta surge, are worrisome.
Wyoming won national praise for keeping schools open all last year. Gov. Mark Gordon, who contracted Covid-19 last year and has encouraged people to get vaccinated, imposed a statewide mask mandate in December that he kept in place for schools even after he lifted it in March, which helped limit the spread of disease in classrooms. Despite the Delta surge and a recommendation from the C.D.C. for universal masking in schools, Mr. Gordon, a Republican, said this month that he would not impose another mandate and that he would leave it to each district to decide.
In Laramie County School District 1, which has about 14,000 students, including about 840 at Carey Junior High, the school board recently cut short its public meeting about masking when a man began ranting about another hot-button issue: critical race theory.
“Fifty percent of the calls here have been, ‘Please mask our kids,’ and 50 percent of the calls have been, ‘We’re not wearing masks,’” said Margaret Crespo, who left Boulder, Colo., about six weeks ago to become the new District 1 superintendent. “There’s no gray area.”
Dr. Crespo plans to make an announcement on masking on Friday, just before the school year starts on Monday.
Fights over the masking issue are even more divisive than the vaccination campaign, “and that is playing out in front of our eyes,” said Ray Hart, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the country’s largest urban school districts.
“Everywhere I go this summer, that’s part of the message: Let’s get vaccinated,” said Allen Pratt, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association. But “because it’s government, you’ve got a line in the sand where people don’t trust you, and you’ve got to be understanding.”
White House officials have also been encouraging pediatricians to incorporate coronavirus vaccination into back-to-school sports physicals. Many districts are offering the shots during sports practice, with a reminder to athletes that if they are vaccinated, they will not have to quarantine and miss games if they are exposed to the coronavirus.
Laramie County District 1 offered coronavirus vaccines at mandatory clinics to educate high school student athletes about concussions; 32 students accepted shots, said Ms. Farmer, the nurse. The numbers were better at the junior high clinics; over two days at three schools with a total of about 2,400 students, more than 100 took their shots.
Ms. Farmer was satisfied.
“If it’s 100 people,” she said, “that’s 100 that didn’t have it yesterday.”