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The District of Columbia last week ended its plan to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for children to attend school this upcoming academic year.

In announcing the decision, the Council of the District of Columbia noted that no state has mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for schoolchildren, that the public health emergency has ended and that not attending school has detrimental effects for children.

Commenting on the news, Kim Mack Rosenberg, acting general counsel for Children’s Health Defense (CHD), told The Defender, “While I believe that mandates — whether in D.C. or elsewhere — were legally problematic from the outset, the council’s decision to now remove the mandate is an important step to remedy a mandate that should never have been imposed.”

Rosenberg added:

“However, parents need to be vigilant in the future to protect their children from similar attempts to control access to education and the classroom by essentially forcing children to take unwanted medical treatments.

“Education is essential to children’s success, and to condition access to education, especially by mandating an experimental product is, simply put, unacceptable.”

Rolf Hazlehurst, senior staff attorney, told The Defender the mandate was rescinded as an outcome of extensive grassroots organizing by families and legal work by CHD.

Hazlehurst said:

“CHD is proud to have worked closely with a grassroots movement of parents, including the plaintiffs in Booth V. Bowser, who stood up for the children of DC against the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

“If the COVID-19 vaccine mandate had not been repealed, by the start of the school year, CHD and parents were prepared to challenge the mandate in a court of law.”

In March 2022, CHD prevailed in a lawsuit against the D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, the D.C. Department of Health (D.C. Health) and D.C. public schools after the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an order granting a preliminary injunction prohibiting the schools from enforcing the D.C. Minor Consent for Vaccination Amendment Act of 2020 — a law that would have allowed children as young as 11 to be vaccinated without the knowledge or consent of their parents.

CHD: D.C. should be ‘prepared to defend this unconstitutional policy in court’

The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education announced on July 19, 2022, that for the 2022-2023 school year, the COVID-19 vaccine would be required for “all students who are of an age for which there is a vaccine fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).”

The announcement came shortly after the FDA fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech Comirnaty COVID-19 Vaccine for children 12 to 15 years old on July 8, 2022, State Superintendent of Education Christina Grant said in a press release.

But the Comirnaty vaccine was not available in the U.S. for any age group.

District education leaders informed parents that students who did not receive the vaccine within the first 20 days of the school year would be prohibited from attending school and reported to the district’s Child and Family Services agency.

In July 2022, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., then-chairman (now chairman on leave) for CHD, sent Grant a letter asking her to rescind the program or CHD would sue to overturn the mandate.

On Aug. 26, 2022, citing difficulties tracking which students had been vaccinated, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) delayed the mandate until Jan. 3, 2023.

By that fall, only about 55% of children in traditional public and public charter schools had received the shots.

In October 2022, after it learned of extensive “compliance challenges” at its “No Shots, No School” public roundtable, the OSSE announced another delay, stating it wouldn’t enforce the vaccine mandate until the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year.

In April of this year, as the mandate compliance deadline approached, CHD acting president Laura Bono wrote a letter to Superintendent Grant, calling the mandate “misguided.”

Bono warned that if OSSE chose to move forward with mandating “an unnecessary COVID-19 vaccine that fails to prevent transmission or infection from COVID-19 for children who could experience side effects, injury or death,” CHD planned to sue.

OSSE would have to “be prepared to defend this unconstitutional policy in court,” Bono said in the letter.

As the school system prepared to implement the mandate, D.C. Health also made it more difficult for students to receive a religious exemption.

Citing “the need to ensure all students in the District remain up to date with all necessary or required vaccinations to attend school,” D.C. Health required parents seeking a religious exemption to fill out a revised religious exemption form, The Defender reported.

The form required parents to acknowledge that by refusing vaccination, they would be placing their children at “increased risk.” It also required them to write a detailed justification of their religious objections.

But, according to a letter Bono and Hazlehurst submitted to the mayor, the Department of Health, the Superintendent of Education and the Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, there is no legal basis to require parents to fill out such a form.

Legally, CHD wrote, a parent seeking exemption need only submit a statement written in good faith that they object to vaccination on religious grounds.

Vaccine compliance was already faltering 

The planned D.C. school vaccine mandate was “among the strictest in the nation,” The Washington Post reported.

D.C. law requires students in all area schools, including private, parochial and independent schools, to be fully compliant with mandated vaccinations, unless they have an approved exemption. The law also requires schools to verify immunization certification for all students.

In its April 2023 letter, CHD’s Bono referenced a video of D.C. Mayor Bowser and Dr. Fauci going door to door to promote the vaccine and encountering mixed reactions, demonstrating that “COVID-19 vaccines are not as popular in the community as you may have previously thought.”

The COVID-19 vaccine mandate was being enacted in a city with wide disparities in vaccination rates between its white and Black children.

Bono’s letter cited CDC data reporting that while 77% of White students ages 12-15 and 87% of White students ages 16-17 received the primary booster, only 41% of Black students ages 12-15 and 49% of Black students ages 16-17 received the primary booster.

D.C.’s plans to implement the mandate remained in place even after other school districts and states across the country abandoned their plans to mandate the vaccine for children.

Washington State halted its plans to mandate the vaccine for children in April 2022. Louisiana ended its plans to mandate the vaccine for children in May 2022. And California, which was the first state to announce it would require COVID-19 vaccinations for children, ditched its plans for a mandate in February of this year.