A Vaccine Mandate for Kids Could Be Coming to PPS

School board members will consider the pros and cons of such a move at a special session this evening.

By Julia Silverman September 28, 2021

If school board members agree, students in Portland Public Schools may need to show proof of vaccination for attendance at some point.

The Portland Public Schools district is poised to become the first in Oregon—and one of only a half-dozen major school districts nationwide, joining Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego—to mandate that kids age 12 and up get the coronavirus vaccine. 

School board members meet Tuesday to consider the proposal, in a work session before the regular board meeting. If a mandate is eventually passed, it's likely to be phased in, beginning with vaccine requirements for student athletes and those who are participating in extracurricular activities, like theater or band, an approach that is also being adopted in Washington, DC, and New York City. A final vote will come later, after there is more opportunity for public feedback. 

So far there is no proposed date by which students would have to be vaccinated. But the next “exclusion day”—the date by which all Oregon kids in schools and childcare facilities need to show that they are current with immunizations against chicken pox, polio, and other diseases unless they have a medical or religious exemption, is February 16, 2022. 

Passing such a mandate would “help reduce the disproportionate effects of the vaccine and/or school closures on the physical and mental health, and academic growth of every PPS student, especially our students of color,” wrote Jonathan Garcia, the chief of staff to PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, in a memo prepared in advance of the meeting. 

One outstanding question is whether such a mandate would eventually be extended to children between the ages of 5 and 11. Pfizer/BioNTech on Tuesday submitted COVID-19 vaccine data to the federal Food and Drug Administration; the company is expected to seek an emergency use authorization in the coming weeks, meaning that children in that age group could begin receiving their shots in late October or early November. 

In Multnomah County, nearly 75 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 are fully or partially vaccinated, according to the Oregon Health Authority. It’s difficult to pinpoint how many are already vaccinated within just the Portland Public Schools system; a survey sent out by the district found that 94 percent of respondents said their kids were vaccinated, but only 24 percent of families had filled it out so far. 

In his memo, Garcia noted that while a vaccine mandate would most likely increase vaccination among Portland middle and high schoolers, one potential drawback was the potential for “public resistance from a vocal minority that further exacerbates the politicization of good public health policy and public education." He also noted that such a mandate could spur more demand for the district’s Online Learning Academy, or cause an overall enrollment drop.