After nearly two years of combating the ever-mutating SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, two facts have become clear: COVID-19 can be deadly, and the polarization of the American public in the face of a pandemic remains high.

The death count from the virus is projected to surpass 800,000 in the United States by the end of the year. Minnesota’s death count is fast approaching 10,000. In the reality of the human toll on those dying from the disease and herculean efforts by health care providers caring for the sick, strong opposition remains for coronavirus vaccinations. For many the pandemic is not as serious as described by the scientific and medical community.

The ever-changing landscape of the pandemic battle does not make the task easy for schools across the state. Minnesota’s current surge in coronavirus cases is fueled by the delta variant. Cases and hospitalizations for the virus are at highs for 2021. News late last month of a new variant – omicron – may be more unwelcome news, although it is still too early to determine if omicron will be more infectious or less lethal than previous variants and evade vaccine protection.

What should school districts be doing? We believe requirements for vaccinations, testing and mask wearing are effective, but difficult to enforce. Students, parents and school staff are caught in a bind over what should be done. It is highly possible mandates will lead to more division and discourse from those in the public opposed to vaccinations and protocols recommended by public health officials. Courts across the nation are now hearing challenges to many of the mandates handed down by governmental units and businesses.

Finding common ground between those who oppose vaccines and question the legitimacy of the pandemic and those who follow public health recommendations to fight the virus may be unattainable. As schools opened in the fall, locally determined protocols were implemented to include masking, hygiene and social distancing. Online learning remains an option for districts where outbreaks warrant keeping kids at home. It is nearly impossible to balance protocols correctly. There needs to be consideration of not only health recommendations, but economic, educational and societal concerns.

We believe it is imperative that parents and the community understand the scope and potential severity that the virus can cause. Early variants of COVID-19 did not infect young people as readily as adults, but that trend has changed this fall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in November recommended Pfizer’s vaccine for the 28 million children in the 5 to 11 age group.

According to the CDC, the childhood case load for infections has increased from 3% in early 2020 to more than 25% this fall. The CDC says more than 6 million children in the U.S. have been infected, including 2 million in the 5 to 11 age group. Nearly 700 children have died from COVID-19. Three students and 18 staff members in Minnesota schools have died during the pandemic. In the face of such facts, it is hard to understand how public opinion polls continue to show 42-66% of parents reluctant or opposed to vaccinations for their children.

Many have compared the current pandemic to the polio epidemics that struck the U.S. through the first half of the 20th Century. In the early 1950s vaccines were developed that led to the disease being eradicated in the U.S. After years of working to find a cure for polio, the public was solidly behind the effort, and it worked. The lightning-like speed for the development of vaccines for coronavirus last year speaks to the scientific medical advances that weren’t present in the 20th century.

There is a strong segment of the U.S. population today that rallies behind science much like that of the previous century. Keep in mind that in the 1950s there was no social media to spread false or misleading information regarding the pandemic and vaccines. Perhaps we were a more trusting society in the 1950s.

Positive steps have been taken to broaden the effort to get kids vaccinated. Last month Gov. Tim Walz mobilized more than 1,100 providers to offer a variety of locations for vaccinations. Pharmacies, health care systems, medical clinics, local public health and tribal health agencies, state-run clinics and some school clinics are taking part. Leaders of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and Education Minnesota have endorsed the effort.

As the state continues to deal with delta and keeping a watchful eye on omicron, local school officials need to keep parents and students current on best practices that can include vaccinations. It is imperative that local school boards adopt policies and protocols that emphasize safety for students and staff. There can be no greater priority in this public health crisis. – An editorial from the Adams ECM Publishers Editorial Board. Reactions welcome, send to: editorial.board@apgecm.com.

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