Tweens in middle school and high school could soon get COVID vaccines. Will their parents let them?

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Ahmed Forehand is hesitant about allowing his 13-year-old son to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. His son attends middle school in Leon County, where the school district has been hosting mobile vaccination clinics for students, faculty, staff, and the public. 

“My opinion is there’s not enough research supporting the reason to get vaccinated,” Forehand said in a phone conversation with the Florida Phoenix. 

He’s not alone. A survey conducted in late March by research company Invisibly questioned 1,258 American parents about whether their child will get vaccinated against COVID. They found that 41 percent of parents planned to wait a few months before letting their kid take the shots.

The survey found that 33 percent of parents had no plan to vaccinate their children for COVID-19 at all. The remaining 26 percent plan to get their child vaccinated as soon as possible.

As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider whether to extend COVID vaccines to children aged 12 to 15 years old, Florida parents must grapple with whether to allow their middle-school kids to get the shots.

Although some Florida teenagers, 16 and 17 year-olds, have been eligible for COVID vaccines since early April, their age group has been approved by the FDA and the CDC for the Pfizer vaccine for some time now. That is the only vaccine approved for those under 18.

Now, federal entities are considering whether to approve Pfizer for students as young as 12, potentially offering vaccine protection from COVID to tweens in middle school and early high school.

The FDA has already approved of the move; a CDC panel agreed on Wednesday afternoon.

The Florida Medical Association issued a written statement supporting vaccinations for 12-15-year-olds.

“Florida physicians agree it is imperative everyone receive the COVID-19 inoculation to stop the spread of the coronavirus and continue to adhere to CDC guidelines. Adolescents are not immune to this pandemic and we encourage parents and pediatricians to discuss next steps in administering this FDA and CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ approved vaccine,” said Michael Patete, the association’s president.

Plenty of parents can’t wait for their child to get vaccinated so they can resume normal activities and get past the pandemic. Others are not so sure.

That’s the case for Ahmed Forehand. “I feel like it needs to be a couple year’s worth of data. I don’t know the long-term effects of the vaccine. And I don’t know if he can develop herd immunity,” he said.

According to the CDC, herd immunity is a situation when enough of a population “is immune to an infectious disease (through vaccination or prior illness) to make its spread from person to person unlikely.” 

The Hillsborough County health department is encouraging all residents to get shots in arms and offers several state and federally-supported vaccine “pop-up” sites in underserved communities, spokesman Kevin Watler said.

The agency says in a newsletter that fully vaccinated individuals can resume many activities; for example: “attend a small, outdoor gathering with fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people, as well as eat at outdoor restaurants with friends from multiple households.”

Coral Schieve also has a 13-year-old and lives in Leon County, but her son takes online classes through the Leon Virtual Academy. She told the Phoenix that her son will be vaccinated as soon as he can.

“He wants the vaccine,” Schieve told the Phoenix. “One of his close friend’s father died about six weeks ago from COVID. The whole family got it.”

She told the Phoenix she won’t be comfortable sending him back to in-person instruction until he has been vaccinated for COVID. But she is not certain that all of his friends will get the vaccine.

“I think most of his peers will,” she said. “But I know enough people in my own family and in my community who aren’t getting the vaccine themselves, so I imagine they will not be getting it for their children, either.”

Tomica Smith lives in Tallahassee and is a parent of three children, aged 16, 13, and 11. Smith told the Phoenix that both she and her husband are fully vaccinated but are nervous about their children following suit. Smith’s 16-year-old hasn’t received the vaccine yet but she plans on getting him vaccinated, she added.

“Of our younger two children, only my 13-year-old son qualifies for the vaccine. I’m honestly on the fence about him getting this one. I can tell you that he won’t be one of the first in line to take it,” she said.

“It’s hard because I work in health care advocacy and have friends who work in the medical field. They’ve explained how vaccines are made and say that it’s safe. I totally trust their opinion and believe in the science, but with my children there’s an emotional question mark,” she continued.

Regardless of her reservations about the vaccines, her son may get inoculated, Smith added.

“More than likely we will sign him up to receive it. We’ve asked him and his little sister and they both want to take the vaccine. They’re ready for this nightmare to be over,” she said.

It’s not just about younger teens securing protection from COVID-19. These decisions also bring ramifications for their school environments.

Wendy Doromal, president of the Orange County Classroom Teacher Association, thinks it’s great that the vaccine could soon be available for tweens, relieving some of the stress from teachers working in person during the pandemic. School personnel have been eligible for the vaccine since early March.

 And she thinks most parents will in her community will get their tweens vaccinated.

“Just going by conversations with teachers who have children, and parents that I’ve talked to,” she said in a conversation with the Phoenix, “I think a lot of them are, and I think the people that are hesitant are the outliers.”

Just as Leon County offered COVID vaccines at some public schools, Doromal told the Phoenix that Orange County opened vaccine sites in its high schools when they became available to older teens in April.

In fact, some school districts are already preparing for the 12-15 year-old-crowd to get approved for the COVID vaccine. The Alachua County school district will provide vaccine sites at some middle and high schools, according to WCJB in Gainesville.

What happens when a parent doesn’t want their child to receive the vaccine, even if the child wants it? In Florida, minors require parental consent, according to the Florida Department of Health’s website. And even at the vaccine sites at the Orange and Alachua county schools, parents still need to consent.

So, when a parent does not want their child vaccinated — and the data show there are plenty who don’t — their opinion overrides a child’s preference, potentially prolonging the timeline for when Florida schools, families, and students can return to a more normal setting.

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.
Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.