We've got to prioritize parents for vaccination if we want to keep our kids safe, sane, and get back to normal as soon as possible.

An image of a woman being vaccinated.
Credit: Getty Images.

It finally feels like there's light at the end of the tunnel. With three approved COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson), more than 39 million Americans—about 12 percent of the population—have been fully vaccinated since December. And though distribution is ramping up, demand is still greater than supply—and many parents are wondering when it'll be their turn and what, exactly, happens if their kids are going to be unvaccinated for a while.

The thing is, if we want any sense of pre-pandemic normalcy and want schools to reopen as soon as possible, we've got to prioritize moms, dads, and primary caregivers for the COVID-19 vaccine. Health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities, other essential workers, and high-risk individuals have been at the front of the line for getting vaccinated, but we're now at the point where we've got to push for educators, child care workers, and parents to not only be eligible for shots, but be able to secure appointments—and it all comes down to keeping our kids safe and sane.

All Parents Deserve Prioritization

"The prioritization of teachers and school staff in vaccine distribution has been an essential step toward ensuring that the people who educate our children can do so safely," says Khama Ennis, M.D., M.P.H., associate chief of emergency medicine at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts. "It would naturally flow that parents and caregivers should not have to choose between the social/emotional health of their children and their own risk of complications of COVID, especially if they have chronic conditions that put them at risk of serious illness."

Parents of high-risk children

It's not just high-risk parents we should be worrying about; it's also important to consider children who are at an increased risk of severe complications from COVID-19. Since only those 16 and up are currently approved to get vaccinated and drugmakers are just starting to include children 12 and under in clinical trials, many of our kids won't be able to get the vaccine for months.

The good news is that babies and children aren't typically hit as hard by COVID-19, but those with underlying medical conditions could experience more serious illness, hospitalization, and even death. Since coronavirus transmission within households is common, we've got to get vaccines into the arms of everyone else to protect our little ones.

"We have worldwide data showing that the majority of pediatric cases of COVID are due to the virus spreading in the home/community setting, and that student-to-student spread in schools is rare," says Jessica Madden, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist and medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps. "This is likely because families are not masking and social distancing around each other at home, while in schools with in-person learning masking and social distancing are enforced (for the most part). Thus, the best way to prevent spread of the virus within schools is to stop spread of the virus at home. This will require parents and caregivers to be vaccinated. Prioritization of the vaccination of parents will be the key element for all children in the U.S. to finally return to in-person learning."

Dr. Ennis agrees, adding that parents whose children are high risk should be considered a higher priority in vaccine distribution. Since the vaccines are still so new, experts can't say with 100 percent certainty how long immunity will last. But immunizing parents, says Dr. Madden, "will provide protection to children and tide things over until the pediatric vaccine is available."

Parents of kids with disabilities

We can't leave out parents of children with disabilities, whose families rely on them for health care and special services. In California, some of these caregivers are being turned away at vaccine sites, with staff there unsure about whether or not to let people through the screening process—even when the California Department of Public Health confirmed that they should be eligible.

"The first priority for vaccinating parents should be those who are in a high-risk category themselves," says Dr. Madden. "The second priority for vaccinating parents should be offering the vaccine to those who live with a high-risk family member (a cancer patient, an immunosuppressed child, a newborn baby, and/or an elderly family member). Parents of children with special needs, such as those with Down syndrome, should also be prioritized, as many kids with developmental delays depend on schools to provide in-person therapies." 

Low-income and parents of color

"My position on moving parents up to the priority list is not a matter of dismissing those who do not have children or groups who have been waiting patiently for their turn to receive the vaccine," says Chris LeBron, an urban policy consultant currently working with candidates running for office in New York City's 2021 election who's been vocal about public school parents—and specifically low-income parents in New York—having access to vaccines. "My push for parents to receive consideration is rooted in equity, particularly that of gender and racial equity." 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), racial and ethnic minority groups are at an increased risk of getting and dying from COVID-19, with Black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian Americans impacted at higher rates than white and non-Hispanic individuals.

In New York City public schools, 40.6 percent of students are Hispanic, 25.5 percent are Black, 16.2 percent are Asian, and 15.1 percent are white. Though the population is diverse, public schools are still pretty segregated. The New York City Council points out that "74.6 percent of Black and Hispanic students attend a school with less than 10 percent white students." Of the 1.1 million students in NYC public schools, nearly 73 percent are considered "economically disadvantaged."

"NYC is the largest public school system in the country and it serves a cultural masala of humanity, the vast majority being minority children," says LeBron. "As a Nuyorican (New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage) who benefited from the public school system, making sure that parents, children, and educators are safe in this grand re-opening is of the utmost importance to me and no doubt of our city's representatives. The pandemic has highlighted many problems, one, in particular, is how devastating an impact it has on health and economically on minority families, not just in my city but across the country. Comorbidities are something to consider but why is it that comorbidities exist in greater volume in minority communities? The only answer that I can find is poverty."

And, actually, that's something we should be seeing on a national level to help low-income and families of color across the country, especially when Black and Hispanic Americans are already less likely to work remotely. So the risk of exposure from work combines with the risk of exposure at school, leaving Black and Hispanic families at high jeopardy for the disease.

"COVID-19 and its variants do not subscribe to human-conceived vaccination policy," says LeBron. "It goes around and thrives when we provide it an environment to infect and evolve. Environments like schools. At this moment with our nation's third vaccination option providing us the mobility to inoculate, I believe now we have a tool to fight this war against the invisible enemy from multiple directions. Let's consider protecting our nation's most vulnerable youth."

New Parents

Since vaccine approval for children is still far off, we can safely assume that infants won't be able to receive a COVID vaccine for even longer.

"Parents of newborns and young infants should also be prioritized because babies are at a high risk for getting sick from the virus," says Dr. Madden. "As the world 'opens back up' in upcoming months, parents of newborns and infants will need to be cautious and take care to minimize exposure of their babies to unimmunized individuals." That means continuing with social distancing, hand-washing, and mask-wearing to keep babies healthy.

The Bottom Line

All parents need to be vaccinated to avoid losing any more moms and dads, but also to protect our children, get them back to school, and start to open the door to playdates, visiting grandparents, and going on family vacations again—especially as the CDC now says much of that is on the table once you've been fully vaccinated.

"If parents are vaccinated, not only can they more safely care for kids who may be come ill (and for whom there are no authorized vaccines at this time), they may also interrupt the cycle of transmission and help us get the pandemic under control," says Dr. Ennis.