Friday, June 21, 2024

As we drive through Cambridge, a popular yard sign reminds us, “Science is Real.” We, a group of Cambridge parents, agree and think that Covid prevention decisions by the School Committee should be guided by science and data, as well as the recommendations of experts. Still, we disagree with the committee’s mandating of the emergency-use authorization Covid vaccine for children 5-plus for them to participate in after-school activities.

Under the current committee mandate recommended by interim superintendent Victoria Greer, a child who is not vaccinated with the Covid vaccine could spend six hours a day in a classroom with peers and teachers but be excluded from participating in after-school sports, played outside where transmission is far less likely. (Clearly, the mandate is not based upon a scientific understanding of transmission). Children will also be excluded from theater and other extracurricular activities including school dances, but will not be excluded from the community schools housed in Cambridge Public School buildings.

This policy creates a second-class student. Rather than following the medical and scientific considerations, the School Committee and Greer have designed a policy that appears political, with the intent to shame and isolate children to coerce their parents into making medical decisions that may be inconsistent with their personal and/or religious beliefs and even the recommendations of trusted medical experts.

In addition, the brunt of this misguided mandate will be borne by the middle- and low-income families who depend on CPS after-school programs to provide safe and affordable care and activities for their children while they are at work. The mandate would force these parents to choose between their livelihoods and their decisions about what medical interventions are appropriate for their children. Such choices should not be forced on parents.

The FDA’s expert panel recommended emergency-use authorization so parents and physicians could make informed decisions about vaccinating young children on a case-by-case basis. Dr. Cody Meisner, the director of the Pediatric Infectious Disease unit at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and a member of the FDA advisory committee, stated that mandating vaccination of young children would be “an error at this time until we get more information about the safety.” Dr. Michael Kurilla, the only member of the 18-expert panel to abstain from the vote, explained that while the vaccine was clearly indicated for some children, he was not convinced it was appropriate for all children ages 5 to 11. Kurilla declined to support a recommendation lacking in appropriate “nuance.” Panel member Dr. Eric Rubin, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, said that while the vaccine was “pretty safe” for young children, he worried about “a side effect that we can’t measure yet,” one of those side effects being a heart condition called myocarditis that has been associated with vaccination of children in rare cases.

Other panelists agreed that the data indicated that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed its risk for some, but not all children. Panelist James Hildreth, chief executive of Meharry Medical College, called the decision “a really tough one,” as he believed high-risk children should be vaccinated but that the data gathered to date did not convince him that universal vaccination of this age group was appropriate. In the end, the panel voted to approve because it did not want to deny emergency-use authorization, which would deprive high-risk children access to a potentially lifesaving vaccine.

The concerns expressed by the members of the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee were not taken into account by the School Committee nor by Greer. The FDA approval was still weeks away when on Oct. 5, three weeks before the VRBPAC submitted its recommendation, the committee voted 6-1 to adopt Greer’s proposal that students who are not vaccinated with the Covid vaccine be excluded from after-school activities. With the approval of the recommendation by Greer, Cambridge became the largest district in the state to adopt a vaccine mandate that would automatically take effect for all age groups upon FDA approval. There is no scientific reason why the School Committee couldn’t have waited, as the overwhelming majority of districts have, for more information and public discussion. By recommending in October that the School Committee adopt a mandate, Greer forced members into a difficult political consideration, rather than a measured scientific and data-driven one, in the final weeks of their reelection campaigns.

In Cambridge, where it can be challenging for voters to tease out any meaningful policy distinction between committee candidates, it’s easy to imagine how voting against the mandate could have led to an election loss. It was much safer for members to follow the superintendent’s recommendation, which may explain why only one member, José Luis Rojas Villarreal, was willing to stick his neck out and vote “no” on the recommendation to mandate an emergency-use authorization immunization.

In this era of unprecedented political polarization, there is a tendency of those on the left, the parents signing this letter included, as well as the members of the School Committee and many Cambridge voters, to associate vaccine hesitancy or even questioning of a mandate with Fox News, Trump and other organizations of the right. Unquestionably, there has been a troubling proliferation of dangerous misinformation circulated by some in regard to the Covid vaccine, but to reflexively adopt an equally extreme opposite conclusion about objections to a mandate of Covid vaccines before considering the opinion of true experts is also dangerous.

Science is real – and our political leaders should not dismiss legitimate parental concerns in favor of political name calling. While ostensibly deferring to the expertise of federal regulators, the School Committee’s mandate does the opposite.
If the committee had not acted with such haste, it would have heard some national experts echo concerns that many Cambridge parents have held but been hesitant to express. If city government really believes in dialogue, inclusion and diversity, it should respect different opinions, foster open conversation and acknowledge the limits of its medical expertise. Good policy is rarely made in haste, weeks before an election, without due consideration of all relevant data.

While a city government may have the right and the responsibility to make policy that protects residents from Covid-19, this does not justify a mandate that outpaces the science and weaponizes exclusion and shaming of children to impose unscientific restrictions on them due to their parent’s medical decision-making.

A silver lining of the committee’s premature adoption of the vaccine mandate is that there is still time to reverse course, especially before the mandate is extended to 5- to 11-year-old children. The committee should revisit Greer’s recommendation and pause the implementation of this mandate now.

The newly elected committee can examine this policy thoroughly by the usual and appropriate process of subcommittee meetings, parental input and due process without immediate concerns about reelection. We ask them to please give immediate and full consideration to concerns about mandating the vaccine for our young children.

If anyone is interested in joining us in fighting this mandate, please email [email protected].

Caroline Clark, Elinor Actipis, Ann Barnes, Ken and Suzanne Elkind, Jennifer and Noah Miklas