Like many of you, we have been watching in dismay as children’s health is politicized by adults. Just as kids begin to head back to school, increasing numbers of them are contracting COVID-19 and being hospitalized, and they need more protection than ever

We have called on the Biden Administration to create a plan tailored to children that will ensure an equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine when they become eligible, and in the meantime, we call on all players (parents, school leaders, and public health officials) to keep children as safe as possible.

Children are the largest unvaccinated population in the country right now. Many of them go to schools in old buildings with outdated ventilation systems. Others will be in classrooms that simply don’t make social distancing possible. Some live in states that are attempting to prevent them from wearing masks. All of these things make them incredibly vulnerable. But, adults can take steps to mitigate their harm — and it’s on all of us to ensure they do.

What have we called for and why?

Back in April, we called for the federal government to roll out a vaccination plan uniquely tailored to children and their specific needs. We recognized that vaccines would not be readily available for all kids for some time, but the preparation necessary to protect children from this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic could absolutely begin immediately. We called for plans to address massive racial inequities in vaccine distribution, for a public education campaign that took advantage of trusted community voices, and a distribution plan that met kids and families where they were.

Last week, we thanked the Biden administration for the work they’ve done to date to promote youth vaccination, and suggested additional ways for them to prepare for when more kids are eligible for vaccines and to reach families who may need more information before their child is vaccinated. This should include using all available federal resources and existing programs for sharing information and reaching families, holding listening sessions for caregivers to learn about their concerns and effective ways to address them, and have an explicit goal of eliminating racial and other disparities in children’s vaccinations. All of this work adds up to protecting children and promoting equity in their health, which are goals we should all have. 

What does President Biden’s recent memo to the Secretary of Education mean for kids?

On August 18th, President Biden released the “Memorandum on Ensuring a Safe Return to In-Person School for the Nation’s Children” — which directed Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona “to assess all available tools” to ensure that students can return to school this fall “without compromising their health or the health of their families or communities” and that Governors are “not standing in the way of local leaders” who are “taking all appropriate steps to prepare for a safe return to school.”

Here, President Biden offers his most-firm-to-date stance, directing Secretary Cardona to ensure that local leaders are doing everything in their power to — as First Focus President Bruce Lesley recently advocated — “implement the array of public health measures to protect children from COVID and keep schools from having to resort to lockdowns and quarantines, which everybody should agree is something we should avoid as best as possible.”

This memo also makes clear that cost is not an issue. When it comes to the safety and health of children at school, the administration will use the Federal Emergency Management Agency to “reimburse States, including their school districts, at 100 percent Federal cost share to support the safe reopening and operation of school facilities and to effectively maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and staff.” Schools, as well as local education agencies, local governments, and states — must do everything within their power to ensure the health of students as they return to school.

Can kids get vaccinated?

The current state of play for kids and the COVID-19 vaccine is mixed. Teenagers and adults ages 16 and over are eligible for the now fully-approved Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Children ages 12 to15 are eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). People ages 18 and over are eligible for the Moderna vaccine, and Moderna has applied for approval of its vaccine in children ages 12-17. And both companies are running pediatric clinical trials now to test their vaccines on children under the age of 12.

The bottom line is that currently, children under the age of 12 are not eligible for a vaccine, and that leaves adult vaccination as one of our best available tools to protect children and their health.

What’s next?

Of course, it’s not a simple situation. The virus is evolving and so is the playbook for how to deal with it. But, that doesn’t mean we just throw our hands up and pretend it isn’t there. The only simple solution we have is to implore local, state, and federal leaders to all ask one key question when developing policies that affect our kids — is this in the best interest of children? If you’re against masks — what are you doing instead to keep kids safe? If you’re demanding that schools reopen fully — what have you done to ensure the school is safe for all kids? If you’re unsure about the vaccine — what are you doing to get trusted information about it to increase your knowledge?

Our kids are watching us. They are depending on us. Let’s make sure we don’t let them down.