Parents hoped that the 2022-23 school year would usher in a post-Covid era. They wanted the prolonged school closures, disruptive quarantine policies, and mask mandates to be over. They yearned for a normal school experience for their children. Unfortunately, for parents of many Washington, D.C., students, new Covid-19 vaccine requirements will close the school doors to their children once again.
In January 2022, the Washington, D.C., government updated the city’s student vaccination requirements to include the Covid-19 vaccine. Starting this school year, the revised law requires a certification of COVID-19 immunization for students eligible for U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccines. That means that D.C. students 12 and older will not be admitted by a school unless their families have submitted their certification of COVID-19 immunization or the student is eligible for an exemption.
What does compliance look like? Although boosters are not currently included in the city’s vaccine mandate, they could be. When updating the immunization requirements for students, the D.C. government declared that:
“COVID-19 immunization” means initial immunization and any boosters or reimmunization required to maintain immunization against COVID-19, in accordance with the immunization standards issued by the public health authorities pursuant to this chapter.
Surely a vaccine requirement added in the height of the Omicron variant would be considered antiquated and unnecessary now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has rescinded most of their restrictive Covid guidance for schools. Unfortunately not. District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser shocked parents by insisting that she planned to enforce this medically intrusive and unnecessary mandate. She even took her determination to harm students further by denying non-compliant students access to remote instruction.
When media coverage revealed that only 53% of the District’s black students ages 12-15 and 58% of black students ages 16-17 have received the vaccine, the disparate impact on students who already suffered under prolonged school closures became clear. Fortunately, the outcry pressured the city to back down slightly. The Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn announced on the Friday before the school year began that enforcement of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate has been delayed to January 3, 2023.
Parents may be assessing their options once the vaccine mandate is enforced but, unfortunately, families won’t be able to enroll their unvaccinated students in D.C. private schools. Under the vaccine requirements for D.C. schools, “school” means: a District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) school; a public charter school; and “an independent, private, or parochial school serving any grades pre-K through 12.”
So, what can be done? Congress should expand the federally-funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) for low-income students to include the students that DCPS refuses to serve. The expansion should include a Covid-19 vaccine waiver. Members of Congress could expand education freedom even further by providing all D.C. families with direct access to the $30,000 the D.C. government spends per student each year. By giving education funding directly to families through education savings accounts, they can use it to find eligible alternatives in the area.
If the D.C. government essentially kicks students out of school when the vaccine mandate enforcement begins in January, neighboring school districts could accept the students and use the portable funds to cover the expenses to educate them. School districts regularly charge tuition for out-of-district students.
Parents of D.C. students with special needs should consider applying for a special education nonpublic placement in a private school in the D.C. suburbs. If a public school system like DCPS is denying a student with a disability a free appropriate public education, parents can enroll their child in a private school and bill the public school system. It is a cumbersome and, at times, legally challenging, process, but it’s not uncommon in the District. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), a child should receive an education in the least restrictive environment. A public school that refuses to educate a child with special needs both in-person or remotely is ludicrously restrictive.
With the District of Columbia planning to cut off access to education for students who have not received Covid-19 vaccines, policymakers, parents and concerned citizens should ensure families have alternative options. It’s time for irrational and unjust Covid-era policies to come to an end, and for parents to be empowered with education freedom.