High school students in Albemarle County who want to play winter, spring and club sports have until Nov. 8 to become fully vaccinated.
The school division announced the requirement last week to families and provided more information Friday. Several other school systems throughout Virginia, including Charlottesville, have similar requirements. The COVID-19 vaccine is currently available to anyone 12 years and older, meaning that all high school students are eligible.
In Albemarle County, 79% of children 12 to 17 are already fully vaccinated, and 87% have received at least one dose.
The division’s announcement comes as cases are surging locally and throughout the state.
Students who opt to not get vaccinated will have to submit weekly proof of a negative COVID test to the school nurse by 4 p.m. Mondays, starting Nov. 8. Families will have to pay for testing. The division also is offering school-based vaccination clinics to ensure students have access to the vaccine before the requirement goes into effect.
For more information and to make an appointment, go to vaccinate.virginia.gov. Individuals are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two weeks after the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot. The school division said student-athletes need to get their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna by Nov. 8 or to receive a Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Division administrators including high school athletic directors, director of secondary education Jay Thomas and schools Superintendent Matt Haas made the decision to implement the requirement, spokesman Phil Giaramita said.
School employees are subject to a similar requirement, which went into effect Sept. 15.
The Virginia Department of Education classifies athletics as a high risk activity, and Giaramita said that the requirement is “a natural forward step” in the COVID-19 mitigation practices.
“We are committed to providing as safe an environment as we can for our student-athletes,” high school athletic directors wrote in a joint message to families Friday. “Vaccinations are a critical step in mitigating both the spread of COVID-19 and its severity. It also can minimize disruptions to the athletic season and to the ability of families to attend these events.”
About 1,200 students are expected to participate in winter sports, Giaramita said.
Giaramita said that because of the nature of athletic competitions and practices, the number of close contacts required to quarantine can be quite high when an athlete tests positive.
“You can be looking at 20 or more students compared to the one or two or even none that might be the case in a classroom,” he said.
Fully vaccinated individuals do not have to quarantine. So far this year, 32 student-athletes have had to quarantine compared to 739 students overall.
Last year, 167 student-athletes were quarantined. Additionally, positive cases and quarantines forced several teams to end their seasons early last year.
The vaccination requirement doesn’t apply to students participating in fall sports. That’s because the season is already underway, according to answers provided to frequently asked questions.
“Retroactively requiring vaccinations or testing may negatively impact those who are already participating in these activities,” division officials wrote.
A handful of parents expressed concerns about the requirement, the safety of the vaccine and potential side effects during Thursday’s School Board meeting
The vaccines themselves are safe and effective at preventing severe illness and death, officials with the health district as well as medical professionals have said repeatedly. Some people experience side effects ranging from fatigue to, on very rare occasions, inflammation of heart muscle and blood clots. In the face of a disease that has caused more than 685,000 deaths in the U.S. alone, experts have stressed that it is important for people, particularly parents, to consider the high risk of contagion, illness and possible death from COVID-19 versus the much lower risk of side effects from a shot.
The vaccines were developed within several months in part because of research that had been underway since 2003 to find a vaccine for another coronavirus, SARS-CoV-1. That virus had led to the SARS epidemic that killed 774 people that year.
No corners were cut or steps skipped in the development of COVID-19 vaccines, experts have explained. All three vaccines for the new coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, went through clinical trials involving thousands of people at many sites across the country throughout 2020. Because scientists were able to utilize technology and knowledge gained in fighting the previous virus, the COVID-19 vaccines first became available faster than any other vaccine in history.
In December, 2020, a panel of experts at the Food and Drug Administration reviewed the data from the trials and recommended an emergency use authorization, or EUA, for the Pfizer vaccine. An EUA for the Moderna vaccine quickly followed, and later, the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The EUA process allowed the vaccines to be distributed as quickly as possible because of the unprecedented threat of COVID-19. The scientific rigor behind the studies was nonetheless carefully considered by the nation’s leading infectious disease experts, immunologists and others. Those experts and others predicted that the vaccine science behind the vaccines would hold up and that within months, the vaccines would gain full approval. That began to happen in August, when The Pfizer vaccine was fully approved for people 16 and older.
Since the vaccines first became available under the EUA in December, 183 million people in the United States have become fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.