Addressing Vaccine Questions, And Hesitancy, In The Classroom

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CHERRY HILL, NJ (WSKG) — Ahead of summer break and the next school year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15. It was previously only authorized to those 16 and older.

With more students eligible to get the shot, their teachers are serving as sounding boards for information about the vaccine and the science behind it.

(April Franklin/WXXI News)

Rick Rutherford, who teaches high school biology and chemistry at Harpursville Junior-Senior High School in Broome County, said vaccine science is not part of the typical curriculum. While he said he has taught students about vaccines in the past, never was the topic as front-and-center as it is now.

“It wasn’t as relevant. It wasn’t in the news,” Rutherford said. “There might be a story here or a story there, but there wasn’t the same level of focus.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, just under half, or 48.4 percent, of all New Yorkers had received at least one dose of the vaccine. As the rollout ramped up, Rutherford said, his students began asking more in-depth questions about the shot, and whether it was safe to get themselves.

Rutherford said that without the state Regents exams this year, his chemistry course has been more fluid. To fill the space, he said he has been teaching students about more current issues, like nuclear power, and discussing the costs and benefits of that technology.

When, toward the end of class, a student asked about the safety of the vaccine, Rutherford said he encouraged students to look to the same cost-benefit analysis they used in their lesson.

“You have to weigh it,” Rutherford recalled saying to the class. “Is that a chance you’re willing to take, versus the chance that you’ll get COVID or the chance that you get COVID, and something happens?”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) vaccine advisory committee, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), will meet to review Pfizer’s data and decide whether to recommend the vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds on Wednesday.

In a statement, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the head of the Department of Health, Howard Zucker, will meet with the state’s Clinical Advisory Task Force and make a final recommendation. Cuomo added there could be full authorization for vaccinations in New York as early as Thursday.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the state’s online registration portal for its mass vaccination sites did not yet allow anyone ages 12 to 15 to sign up.

Rutherford said he will continue to give students the tools they need to make an informed decision about the vaccine, not what he might believe is the right decision.

“That’s a personal decision, but it’s my job as a teacher to provide you with the information so you can look up the specifics, or we can look them up together, and you can make that decision for yourself,” he added.

But true to his role in the classroom, Rutherford admitted the sample of students he teaches may be skewed. Since 2019, New York has required all students in public, private and religious schools in the state to get state-mandated immunizations. Legislation signed that year made it so non-medical, religious and philosophical exemptions were no longer permitted, unlike in neighboring Pennsylvania.

It came as a measure to address a measles outbreak, which largely affected areas with high concentrations of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, who have lower school immunization rates.

Rutherford said that policy could indicate parents living in the district are more open to vaccines generally, but he stressed that it was only a hypothesis.