As political leaders and pundits alike debate mask mandates and what a post-Omicron “new normal” might look like, school officials across the country continue to confront the daily practical challenges of keeping their doors open and their students safe. Vaccination remains our first line of defense to reduce transmission in schools. However, we are far from reaching our goals nationally, with only 31.8 percent of 5- to 11-year-olds receiving at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of early February. Although this work is far from over, one key lesson learned so far from the COVID-19 vaccination effort is the importance of ensuring that vaccines are available in places that are accessible, convenient, and safe. Throughout the pandemic, school-located vaccination (SLV) has played a critical role in expanding access to COVID-19 vaccines for students, their families, and school staff across the country. Continuing this momentum and reaching unvaccinated populations that may still face barriers to accessing the vaccine in traditional health care settings will require school, state, and federal leaders to both double down on successful strategies for engaging communities and increase investments in schools to optimize their potential as a vital part of public health infrastructure.
Efforts to vaccinate adolescents and children against COVID-19 have catalyzed innovations and partnerships among public health departments, health care providers, schools, and communities that have increased the availability of, and access to, COVID-19 vaccines. These school-based public health efforts, along with other approaches such as community vaccination sites, can play an important role in increasing COVID-19 vaccination rates among children and adolescents and can also connect children to local health care providers for well-child visits and routine pediatric vaccinations that have lagged during the pandemic. Despite this progress, school leaders and their partners have faced a variety of challenges that have hindered their efforts to establish and sustain SLV efforts, including staffing shortages, limited reimbursement, logistical challenges, and pressures related to the politicization of science and public health.
Addressing these and other challenges to SLV will be essential to strengthening the role of schools in both improving vaccination rates and connecting students to other critical preventive services. Establishing, scaling, sustaining, and continuously improving these efforts beyond the current public health emergency, however, requires assessing and sharing which SLV approaches have been successful, addressing barriers that make vaccination in schools difficult, and building long-term vaccination infrastructure that can support vital partnerships between educators and public health. To this end, this article highlights priorities and strategies for enabling, strengthening, and sustaining SLV models during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, and the policy levers that can help increase equitable access to childhood vaccinations.
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