Schools Usually Enforce Child Vaccinations. With COVID-19, That Job Is Falling to Private Businesses

Studio E School of Dance, Queens’ Forest Hills neighborhood in New York City, is experiencing a drop in students. A city-wide policy that went into effect on Dec. 14 bars children ages 5 and up from attending certain extracurricular activities unless they’ve received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Because the majority of Studio E’s students are preschool and elementary school kids, it is particularly vulnerable to parents’ decisions to forgo activities rather than get their children vaccinated.

“I’ve just been stressed out about how this will affect the business,” says studio director Nicole Siegel-Toruno, whose family has owned the business for 15 years. “We are pushing people to take virtual classes, but people are dropping out and it is affecting our businesses.”
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New York City’s MandatoryThe country’s largest, it targets the youngest residents eligible in order to increase vaccination rates. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine as an emergency treatment for 5-to-11-year-olds in October. Around 20% of these children have received at least one shot in the United States since October. In New York City, it’s 33%, which leaves a sizable majority currently ineligible to participate in dance and various sports, as well as other after-school activities like orchestra and band. To enter indoor public spaces like museums, theatres, arcades or gyms, children must also show proof that they have been vaccinated.

Businesses across the nation have struggled for the past two years with policies that restrict their operations but protect their patrons and staff. That squeeze isn’t likely to go away as new child vaccination policies come to fruition—and could even make operations more difficult for some.

Public-health and legal experts anticipate that New York’s policy is the beginning of a more widespread effort to vaccinate children, despite Resistance from parents. For example, a day before New York’s policy went into effect, Philadelphia AnnouncementStarting Jan. 3, all children over the age of three months will have to present proof that they are taking at least one dose to be allowed to enter any restaurant, sporting venue, cinema theater, or other indoor food establishments.

Local New York business groups say the rush to implement the policy before the holidays has put unnecessary stress on companies given that the mandate—announced a week before its rollout and without input from business groups—didn’t leave companies or parents enough time to prepare. They claim that the requirement for vaccination will adversely impact local economies and harm small businesses, which have been suffering from hardships ever since the beginning of the pandemic.

Studio E for instance, had to shut down one of two offices. And even after adding remote class options and implementing multiple health safety protocols, the dance school hasn’t recovered from New York’s shutdown nearly two years ago. “Vaccines are super important. No one is anti-vaccine,” says Lisa Sorin, president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce. “But I think the timing of this is atrocious.”

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The city’s health department did not respond directly to questions about the timing, but pointed to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Comment on the day the policy was announced, in which he said parents had “plenty of time” to get to a vaccination site or attend a school-based vaccination event. Further, he noted the urgency to launch a “preemptive strike” against rising COVID-19 cases that threatened another shutdown if not kept in check. The vaccination rate for young kids in the city rose from 19% to about 30% in the week between the announcement and the rollout—an increase likely spurred both by families wanting to Protect yourself against Omicron variantThey do not want to lose their Nutcracker tickets.

“A lot of public-health leadership believes that the preference is to push people to do the right thing without having to require them to do the right thing,” says Stacie Kershner, associate director at the Center for Law, Health and Society at Georgia State University. “But in an emergency situation we can’t wait for people to voluntarily do something.”

Enforcing vaccinations for children isn’t at all new and has withstood legal challenges for decades. However, enforcement of vaccinations for children has been centered on historically. School participation, as TIME has previously reported—not private leisure activities. Schools in New York City play a part in the enforcement of the vaccine mandate. Students must be vaccinated in order to take part in school-sponsored activities, such as theater, music, and high-risk sports. But the mandate doesn’t extend into the classroom.

These school requirements will be in place, it is certain. California for example will mandate vaccination. attend school starting in the enrollment period following the vaccine’s full FDA approval. (Pfizer’s vaccine is approved for those 16 and over, but is currently available under emergency authorization for younger kids.) Similarly, Washington D.C.’s council proposed Students are required to get vaccinatedBy March 1, and make school enrollment the following year dependent on this. The proposal is headed to a final vote after passing an initial vote one day before New York’s vaccine policies were announced.

New York’s current policies allowing unvaccinated children to attend school is The private sector is in a state of confusion and contention about this issue. “Why are you hurting businesses when the schools aren’t enforcing it?” asks Sorin, the Bronx Chamber president. “Get the kids vaccinated at school.”

“If this was required in schools then that would be easier on us,” echoes Siegel-Toruno, the dance studio director. “It’s on us to implement and it’s hurting our business because we’re the ones enforcing it.”

The problem with tying vaccinations to education right now is that two-thirds of New York’s elementary school students would not be allowed in the classroom. Unvaccinated children are more likely to come from communities that have suffered the most. Adult vaccination rates in these areas also tend to be low. This disparity can often be attributed to religious and racial differences. For example, only 19% are vaccinated among Black children between 5 and 12, whereas 70% of Asian peers are.

Such disparities aren’t unique to New York. Similar problems could be experienced in other parts of the country if they imposed a school-based rule at this stage. Washington D.C. introduced a mandate that students must be immunized by December to allow them to go to school in October. After it became clear that this policy would have a significant impact on minority children, the idea of vaccinating students was dropped.

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Public health policymakers must weigh the risk of infection against vaccine mandates when deciding how restrictive policies should be. “There’s certainly an economic impact and an administrative complexity [on businesses],” says Kershner, describing New York’s new policy. “City leadership probably weighed that decision and put a little bit of burden on the business in order to prevent disease spread.”

Because they can be spread more easily in places like restaurants and gyms, or music classes, it is easier to get the disease. By targeting these establishments, public health officials are aiming to limit the risk of a superspreader event at places that, unlike school, aren’t an integral part of daily life.

“[Policymakers] are saying, if you want to take on the privilege of being involved in these enrichment activities during the pandemic, we’re going to make sure the risk is as minimized as possible,” says Ross D. Silverman, professor of health services administration and policy at Temple University. These risk-taking decisions may be deemed inappropriate by parents. This puts business owners in an awkward spot.

Another New York dance studio that caters primarily to young children is extending the deadline for its clients beyond the city’s mandate in an effort to accommodate parents whose children aren’t vaccinated. “We have been very on top of all protocols, restrictions and mandates since 2020, but I am very conflicted with this situation,” said the owner, who commented on the condition of anonymity so as to not incur fines from the city. “I could feel the unease amongst parents that are even vaccinated themselves and believe in the science.”

The state ultimately has legal control over the parents and the businesses. “The state has a responsibility to protect the community from the spread of infectious disease first and foremost. And it has an additional responsibility to … make sure children are protected when they are not able to fully make decisions on their own about health issues,” says Silverman. “The Supreme Court has stated that the states can take additional steps to protect children from potential societal dangers above and beyond parental decision making.”

Although some owners of businesses feel overwhelmed by new regulations, there are others who accept them. They want to ensure that everyone in their clientele is vaccinated. The public policies are a way to even the playing field, as they do not have the ability to establish their own vaccination policy.

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James Orfanos is the director of operations for the NY Martial Arts Academy. He anticipates that the school will lose some students. Orfanos noted that most parents were willing to adhere to the new rules. Many parents requested that their accounts be frozen so that their children are vaccinated.

“I believe in the vaccine. I’m fully vaccinated. But I’m not here to put my views on anybody else,” says Orfanos, who runs four locations with his family, three of which are in New York City. “From a basic standpoint, whether from a pandemic or anything else, I’m here to keep my clients safe.”

Patricia Kuszler, a health law professor at the University of Washington, says businesses need to step up so that children don’t get sick or spread the disease to more vulnerable people. “We all have a duty to take care of our fellow man, and that includes not exposing them to ourselves or our kids when we’re unvaccinated. It’s just that simple,” she says. You’ve got to kind of take the bigger picture and say, hey, I’m here not only as someone who’s providing this opportunity for students to learn this skill, but I have to protect them.”

It would be safer for COVID-19 if all of the students were vaccinated at Studio E, Queens. However Siegel Toruno believes that this time pressure is too much. They had been practicing social distancing by being masked. The studio also has sanitation protocols and air purifiers. These measures have prevented COVID from spreading among students. “I know the more we are vaxxed, the quicker it will be over, but I personally feel the policy came on very soon,” she says.

Although the usual end of the year performance is held in December at the dance school, it was changed to June prior to the mandate. This was an excellent decision. “We would have had to cancel it,” she says.


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