What Schools Can Learn from the NFL Vaccine Playbook
Back in July, the NFL released an aggressive COVID-19 plan that will keep games going and incentivize players to get their vaccines: The League informed teams that canceled games due to unvaccinated players may result in forfeits and loss of pay. Vaccinated players who test positive and are asymptomatic can return to play after two negative tests, 24 hours apart. Unvaccinated players, however, must isolate for 10 days. The strategy is working as more than 93% of players and 99% of club personnel are vaccinated.
The NFL has made clear what every football fan knows: Players are only as good as their ability to show up, a team only as strong as its time together on the field. The NFL has also made clear that playing well entails safeguarding the health and safety of everyone in the League. The result: Even vaccine-hesitant players understand that remaining unvaccinated undermines their team’s prospects.
As students head back to school, states and school systems should borrow a page from the NFL’s playbook and embrace consistent and high levels of vaccination among school staff and eligible students as the lynchpin to a successful year.
This aligns with President Biden’s path out of the pandemic, which calls for schools to increase incentives and requirements to get staff and students vaccinated. Biden was adamant that schools must aim to get 100% of teachers vaccinated. “Vaccination requirements in schools are nothing new,” he said. “They work.” Some districts are aiming higher: The Los Angeles school board, which manages the second-largest district in the country, voted to mandate vaccines for students 12 and up.
As a network-based organization with franchises across the country, the NFL’s vaccination plan provides a useful model for schools to learn from as they build their plans this year.
COVID-19 is spreading fast among children, most often among children of color and low-income households. The number of children hospitalized due to COVID-19 has reached the highest level since the pandemic began. As more kids return to school, infection rates are climbing, and districts have had to institute frequent, widespread quarantines and whole-school closures.
Recent studies have shown that remote school is often no substitute for the classroom: Pandemic learning disruptions have left K-12 students an average of five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading.
We need a vaccination plan to keep our schools open for learning and the other critical roles that they play in their communities. What should that playbook look like?
First, school staff — teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, janitors, administrators — must be required to get vaccinated unless there is a clear medical or religious reason for exemption. Those who do not get vaccinated should be offered frequent community surveillance testing.
Second, every school should utilize federal stimulus dollars to create a campaign to get members of their community vaccinated, including students, families, and neighbors. The access schools have to American communities is wide and deep: some have the physical reach to offer accessible vaccine sites to students and/or the wider community, and most schools have staff and leaders with the necessary trust, credibility, and empathy to talk one-on-one with vaccine-hesitant people and encourage them to do what’s necessary to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.
Third, we should educate. Let us not forget what schools do best: We have an unparalleled opportunity to teach our kids about the importance of public health, the science behind the virus and how vaccines work, and how to make sense of misinformation.
Finally, school leaders should develop plans to encourage vaccinations for eligible students. Whether this is by providing incentives, such as providing a gift card for submitting proof of vaccination or access to events and opportunities, or by mandating vaccines for students who do not have clear medical or religious exemptions, as the Los Angeles Unified School District has done. We also must prepare for the next change in COVID-related policy, particularly the possible upcoming emergency authorization of vaccines for children ages 5–12.
A school vaccine playbook, deployed across the country, would help keep our schools open and allow us avoid a repeat last year’s learning loss and social-emotional disruptions.
Students need consistency. Parents need reliability. Communities deserve to be safe. Schools need to prioritize vaccination as a linchpin to a safe and successful year. It’s unacceptable to settle for lower safety standards for our children than for grown adults playing professional ball.
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