Sunday, May 19, 2024

Student participation in extracurriculars including student government, visual and performing arts and athletic events are risked by not being vaccinated in a Tuesday decision by the School Committee. (Photo: Marc Levy)

All age-eligible students in Cambridge Public Schools must be vaccinated against Covid-19 or lose out on extracurricular activities, the School Committee decided Tuesday in accepting a recommendation by interim superintendent Victoria Greer.

The requirement applies to all students 12 and older effective Nov. 22. It will apply to younger students when the vaccine is approved for their age group.

Starting Nov. 29, students who are eligible but not vaccinated will continue to attend classes but cannot participate in extracurricular activities including student government, visual and performing arts, school clubs that meet outside of the school day, school-sponsored social events and athletic events including club and intramural sports. All student athletes can finish the current season, but the vaccine will be required to participate next season when many sports are indoors and close-contact, with a higher risk of transmission if athletes aren’t vaccinated.

“This is not to be punitive and put children out of school,” Greer said. “This is to ensure the safety of our schools and our school community.”

The high school’s director of athletics, Tom Arria, noted at the committee meeting that on Sept. 28 the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association board voted to adopt a recommendation that all of its student athletes be vaccinated. Cambridge has one of the largest athletic programs in the state, with more than 35 teams competing in interscholastic competitions each year.

“With vaccinations it is less likely that that we would have to quarantine a team, move games or suspend games,” Arria said, though the decision was about “the health and well-being of all student athletes in competition.”

How the district mandate will be carried out was a concern.

Member Fred Fantini asked if the district could even bar unvaccinated students from extracurricular activities or require proof of vaccination.

“We’re still sorting out all those details,” said Lisa Dobberteen, of the Cambridge Public Health Department. “But we can absolutely require proof of vaccination. We do that all the time. And in fact, we’re very good at it.”

The district has had 19 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among staff and students since schools opened to all students in September, with five staff cases and 14 student cases. The high school has had three cases; the four upper schools have had two; the 12 elementary schools have had 13 cases total; and there have been no cases at the Amigos school, which has junior kindergartners  through eighth-graders.

A mandatory vaccination policy is already in effect for district educators and staff. For those who are not vaccinated, daily testing on school days is required unless a “recognized exemption or valid justification” is granted by the district.

“Data has shown that while there may be breakthrough cases of the virus in vaccinated individuals, vaccinated individuals are less likely to require hospitalization or die from the virus,” Greer wrote in the proposal. “We cannot sit by and let the virus destroy the futures of our young people who have already experienced such a negative impact on their academic, social and emotional development.”

Vaccination rate reporting 

Vaccination rates for school-age Cambridge residents vary wildly. The city’s Thursday report showed 83 percent of Cambridge residents aged 12 through 15 years old as fully vaccinated and 11 percent partially vaccinated. Among residents ages 16 through 19, only 48 percent are fully vaccinated and 8 percent partially vaccinated, the lowest rate of any age group in the city.

Though that concerns city officials, the vaccination rate for the 16-through-19 age group is uncertain. State reporting for the group is problematic because college students in Cambridge are “perhaps counted as part of our population, but received their vaccination in another state,” Dobberteen told committee members. That may skew the data to an artificially low percentage.

Committee vice chair Manikka Bowman asked how to get actual data for the district’s student population, separate from students from college, private schools and charter schools.

Families have been asked for vaccine information but responses have varied, resulting in “murky data,” though the department continues its efforts to compile the numbers, Dobberteen said. 

“Anecdotally, I can say that we have spoken with our counterparts in the independent schools and charter schools throughout the city, and their rates vary,” said Dobberteen, adding that her department is reaching out to charter schools regarding clinics in October to help those families feel welcome to get vaccinated against influenza and Covid-19.

Mandating an emergency use vaccine

Three parents were against vaccine mandates during public comment, and members had questions that included the scope of the mandate; how proof of vaccination will be obtained, shared and tracked; and how it will be enforced, which the administration struggled to answer.

The proposal, submitted as a late motion by Greer, did not go through a subcommittee where it would have been examined before a vote. But Dobberteen, a member of the district’s health safety and facilities working group, said there had been a “robust discussion” and that she felt that the “overall sense of the group was quite enthusiastic and very much in support of the vaccine mandate.”

Member Jose Luis Rojas, chair of the buildings and grounds subcommittee, said that he communicated with members of the group and believed some of its members support the mandate only for fully approved vaccinations – at this point, only for the 16-through-19 group – and that the appearance and legality of enforcing a mandate for emergency-use vaccine is uncertain. Other districts have mandated fully approved vaccines, not emergency-use vaccines, he said.

Rojas proposed amending the mandate to apply only to ages 16 and older until the Food and Drug Administration issues full authorization for the Covid-19 vaccine for ages 12 through 15.

The motion failed, with members Ayesha Wilson and Rojas alone in voting to alter the scope of the original proposal.