If Republicans Bet Against Vaccines for Children, Their Schools Will Lose
For millions of parents anxiously awaiting approval of a COVID vaccine for their 5-to-11-year-old children, the wait is over. Last week’s CDC approval of this tremendous scientific achievement for young children can make their families and communities safer and prevent additional disease and death. For schools — the only institutions where vaccine-ineligible people still congregate each day — it could return some approximation of pre-pandemic normalcy much sooner. Ultimately, however, those benefits don’t come from a vaccine approval, but from actual vaccinations. Resistance to getting shots in children’s arms likely won’t come from the parents who have anxiously awaited this vaccine approval, but from the vaccine-hesitant parents. Those parents are overwhelmingly Republicans.
AEI’s August American Perspectives Survey showed 40 percent of parents were ready to vaccinate their 5-to-11-year-old children as soon as the vaccine was authorized. At that time, 63 percent of Democrats were prepared to do so, compared to just 20 percent of Republican parents.
There was an even starker partisan divide among parents strongly opposed to getting their children vaccinated. Just 9 percent of parents who identified as Democrats said they would not get their child vaccinated, compared to 45 percent of Republican parents. Very similar gaps were evident among parents who lean Republican and lean Democrat but do not identify as such.
These personal vaccination decisions are a collective challenge for schools. According to former FDA director and AEI senior fellow Scott Gottlieb, once about 50% of kids are vaccinated, communities should see significant reductions in COVID spread. That makes for pretty simple math suggesting that schools in heavily Democrat areas will see reduced spread much sooner than those with larger shares of Republican parents.
A relatively small share of Republican parents, about 1-in-10, planned to get their children vaccinated if schools required them to. That’s a small fraction, but a meaningful one when just 2-in-10 will get their children vaccinated right away. Unfortunately, the partisan divide on vaccines also extends to views on schools’ vaccine requirements, adding an institutional layer atop these individual attitudes.
Overall, small minorities of both Democrats and Republicans opposed school requirements for routine childhood vaccinations in August, though Republican opposition was noticeably weaker. Opposition to COVID vaccine requirements in public schools was far greater, mostly among Republicans. Fully 45 percent of Republicans strongly opposed public schools requiring eligible students to be vaccinated for COVID, with another 15 percent somewhat opposed. Among Democrats, 5 percent strongly opposed the same requirements, and 9 percent were somewhat opposed. While one can argue about whether opinion drives policy or policy drives opinion in this instance, the upshot is that in the same. In heavily Republican school districts where fewer families will get kids vaccinated quickly, school vaccine requirements are unlikely and won’t push this important group of families on the margin.
The good news since August, that COVID case rates have fallen to half of their recent peaks, is a silver cloud with a dark lining for childhood COVID vaccination rates. The opinions above were captured when case rates were soaring, particularly in red states. Now, vaccine authorization arrives after case rates have fallen precipitously, and, as the perceived COVID threat has receded, so have percentages of parents planning to get their children vaccinated as soon as authorization arrived. Given that recent COVID declines are more pronounced in red states, especially those where cases spiked in August, the slide in vaccine urgency is likely bigger among Republican families.
These marked opinion gaps concerning COVID vaccines will likely translate into gaps in schools’ vaccination rates and the downstream benefits of safer communities and smoother school operations. To be clear, I believe vaccines will benefit children and families and help make schools safer and school operations smoother during the remainder of a pandemic that – with case rates plateauing around the pandemic average—is not yet over. However confident I may be on that score, there are legitimate concerns about injecting a vaccine with a limited track record into your own children. It’s a bet with real uncertainties and serious stakes.
Last school year, Republican’s collective bets about keeping schools open during the pandemic paid off, allowing far more students in red states and school districts the in-person options that today are common across the nation. The current bet is whether vaccinations will provide meaningful protections for students and limit COVID spread in schools, and this time the stakes are not how to best endure the pandemic, but how quickly localities will get past it. This school year, if Republicans disproportionately bet against vaccinations for school-aged children as much as polls predict, their students and schools are the ones likely to lose.
Nat Malkus is a senior fellow and deputy director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.