Photo: The author believes Belmont should adopt a common sense approach to student vaccinations
To the editor:
In the last year and a half, I’ve made it a point to call my elderly Aunt Helen every week. Our conversations touch on a wide range of topics: politics, stories about my parents I’d never heard before, and regular family updates. Lately, Helen has shared stories that are more personal: experiences with her mentally ill father and her unfaithful husband whom she divorced, and sexual harassment and gender discrimination as a working single mom. Recently, I asked her, “How did you manage to get through all of that?” Helen laughed and said, “I just thought of the story about the little engine that could and I told myself, I can, I must, I will.”
Belmont needs a little of my Aunt Helen’s can-do attitude right about now. For the third school year in a row, we’ve struggled to maintain focus on where we want to be in the future and how to get there from a policy perspective. To be fair, the national political and scientific landscape is complex, dynamic, and divisive, and “guidance” from the state has been slow to come and sometimes unhelpful. As a consequence, our small town has become torn about the best ways to keep everyone safe and to return to a “normal life” whatever that means going forward.
We can and must do better. For starters, as it did with the universal indoor mask mandate, the Board of Health should follow the advice of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics by enacting a policy that mandates vaccinations against COVID-19 among all BPS students who are approved for vaccines by the FDA, presently 16 and older. Based on recent data provided by Belmont Superintendent John Phelan, student vaccinations seem to be stuck at the 80 percent mark, which means that hundreds of students who are eligible for vaccines have not yet gotten them. This represents a significant risk to public health and must be addressed.
A vaccine mandate for students who are 16 and older will not ensure that all age-eligible students will get vaccinated, but it will send a powerful message to students and families that vaccines are normal and expected for participation in the Belmont Public Schools for all age groups once the FDA determines that the vaccine is safe. The policy can be written in such a way that families will know that they need to prioritize getting their children vaccinated as soon as their age brackets are approved under Emergency Use Authorization because, eventually, all age brackets will be approved by the FDA. This kind of policy will make it unnecessary for the School Committee to make vaccine policy in an ad hoc way every time a new age group gets approved, leaving time to discuss other essential business, such as academic achievement and the social-emotional wellbeing of our students, both of which have suffered in the last two years.
A vaccine mandate, especially if the policy is enacted with a deadline before Thanksgiving, will not only make schools safer for students and their families by reducing the number of students who will become seriously infected as we head into the winter, it will also be a sign of good faith to our school nurses, the members of the Belmont teachers’ union, and other bargaining units who have agreed to mandatory vaccines that the community cares about their workplace safety.
More than anything, by using its authority to enact this policy, the Belmont Board of Health will help us take a step in the direction of a future we all want for our children and ourselves, a world in which our children can play and attend school largely without masks and without dread of serious illness and death. As a small town with a strong commitment to local governance, we don’t need to wait for the Massachusetts Legislature, which we heard recently from State Senator Will Brownsberger will defer to the state’s Department of Public Health, to issue this common-sense policy. We can and we must take this important step ourselves to protect our community.