By Benjamin Rubin
New York City, New York
Schools are meant to be a safe space for everyone, students and teachers alike. New York City public schools are now meeting in person five days a week, with no option for remote learning. According to several reports, including one from the NWEA, a non-profit organization that provides academic assessments, this was a necessary step after students academically fell during the pandemic. With the COVID-19 Delta Variant spreading like wildfire across the country, hundreds of kids with varying vaccination statuses congregating in a single building endangers children and their families, as well as teachers and their families, too. New York City public schools already mandate seven different vaccines for students — the COVID-19 vaccine should be added to the list.
The argument against a school-system vaccine mandate is threefold: first, a vaccine mandate is unlawful; second, it would cause a political uproar; and third, it runs contrary to American values.
Before discussing whether schools should require vaccinations, can they? Courts have generally recognized states’ authorities to require vaccines for students, but that may be inconsequential due to the COVID-19 vaccines having only emergency authorization from the FDA. However, this particular emergency authorization is unique. Normally, emergency authorizations apply to narrow tracts of the population. COVID-19 vaccines, on the other hand, have been authorized for all people ages 12 and up, which complicates the question of legality. The answer is ambiguous for the time being, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. As the largest school district in the nation, we have the most people to protect and the largest voice to utilize — we must step up.
Fear of political backlash cannot stand in the way of health-oriented protective measures which could allow us to avoid a potentially-disastrous situation in our schools. New York City and California were the first to require government workers to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Las Vegas, the Department of Veteran Affairs and a host of medical groups have since followed suit. “We’re leading by example,” said de Blasio. New York City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi noted that one of the mandate’s goals is to “lift all boats” and raise the standard for vaccination rates. Mandating the vaccine for students will not haunt New York City’s political image; instead, it will pave the way for other school districts—that likely have lower vaccination rates— and encourage them to do the same.
Finally, the United States is an individualistic country — our legislation and population strongly emphasize personal freedoms. Our government has been fine-tuned for centuries so that, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” Majority rule that infringes upon the rights of others is problematic. A vaccine mandate, in no way, shape or form, infringes upon anyone’s rights.
There are two types of rights: human rights and civil liberties. Human rights are the inalienable rights that all humans are granted, one of which being the right of all to be protected from harm. People can act freely so long as their actions do not harm others. Not getting vaccinated directly harms others, therefore it is not a human right. Civil liberties are the individual rights given to people by a state or country’s legislation. If your country allows you to refuse the vaccine, then that is a civil liberty. The US has produced no such legislation. A vaccine mandate does not contradict your freedoms because peoples’ lives do not fall under the jurisdiction of your human rights nor your civil liberties.
Finally, “My body, my choice”—the slogan used to rally for bodily control and abortion rights—has no relavence in this situation. As shown by the over 4 million lives lost so far worldwide, COVID-19 does not just affect your body—it affects everyone’s. Rather than succumbing to misinformation, true patriotism would be to get the shot to shorten the general length of the pandemic so that we can return to normalcy sooner. With only 45% of 12-17 year olds nationwide having received at least one dose, a school-system mandate will drastically aid in the city’s and country’s ongoing struggles with COVID-19.