(Updated at 12:45 p.m.) All high school students will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to participate in school sports, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand announced this morning (Monday).
The requirement will apply to students who plan to get involved in Virginia High School League winter and spring sports this school year, along with activities like dance team and out-of-season workouts that require a physical, but it will take effect on Nov. 8, prior to the postseason for fall sports like football and field hockey.
An FCPS spokesperson says the Nov. 8 date was chosen, because that’s when the school system will start having indoor sports.
“As FCPS students return to our school buildings, our priority must be on our academic programming,” the spokesperson said. “Our data is showing that a significant number of our cases stem from athletics and a disproportionate number of students are having their learning impacted. Therefore, we have made the decision to mandate vaccinations for students who wish to partake in a number of close contact athletic disciplines. By taking this step, we hope to limit the number of students who are being instructed to remain out of school buildings.”
The announcement comes one week after FCPS started its 2021-2022 academic year and 10 days after the district issued a vaccination mandate for employees that’s expected to take effect in October.
As recently as last Tuesday (Aug. 24), school officials had expressed uncertainty about the legality of requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for students.
“As I understand it, that’s not something we’re able to do yet in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Brabrand said at a school board work session. “…I do think, just like the staff vaccination mandate, we need to, as this pandemic evolves, continue to go back and return to these kinds of issues that can really help make our schools safe for in-person instruction now and forever.”
Mount Vernon District School Board Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders, who served on a state task force that looked at the issue, confirmed that Virginia law requires any vaccination requirements for students come from the Virginia Department of Health, which would refer the mandate to the General Assembly.
“The legislature is not meeting again until January, but this may be an area where this board, as we look at our legislative priorities, would urge that,” Corbett-Sanders said.
However, in that same meeting, some board members raised concerns about students missing class time due to sports-related COVID-19 cases and the amount of time that health officials needed to conduct contact tracing, since there was no system in place to quickly determine who had already been vaccinated.
FCPS says vaccinations can be mandated for student athletes without state approval, because sports aren’t required activities and students don’t earn grades or credit for participating in them.
According to the FCPS case dashboard, 234 people, including 164 students and 69 staff members, have reported testing positive for COVID-19 to the school system this month as of Friday (Aug. 27).
Most cases appear to be occurring in elementary schools, but Brabrand says the majority of instances where high school students need to pause instruction have been the result of exposure during athletic activities.
“While we know this is a difficult decision for some families, it is an essential step that we must take to limit the duration of a pause, getting students back to the classroom and their activities sooner, but still safely,” Brabrand said, noting that FCPS will work with the Fairfax County Health Department to ensure students have access to the vaccine before the mandate takes effect.
Brabrand’s full message to the FCPS community can be found below:
Dear FCPS Community,
Beginning November 8, FCPS will require proof of a COVID-19 vaccination for any student participating in Virginia High School League (VHSL) winter and spring sports for the remainder of the 2021-22 school year.
Proof of a COVID-19 vaccination will also be required for participation in any other activity that requires a physical. This includes dance team and step team, as well as out-of-season practices and workouts.
Vaccinating our students is a critical step in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and minimizing any disruption to learning. The majority of pauses to instruction for our high school students come as a result of exposure during athletic activities, which the Virginia Department of Education classifies as a high-risk activity. These pauses impact participation in activities and in-person learning while the Fairfax County Health Department (FCHD) investigates and determines close contacts and next steps.
FCPS will be working with the FCHD to ensure all students who wish to be vaccinated have access to the COVID-19 vaccine before the requirement kicks in on November 8. A total of 75.4% of all Fairfax County 16-18 year-olds are currently fully vaccinated, and 85.7% have had one dose. This timeline allows unvaccinated students ample time to fulfill the participation requirement before the winter sports season begins.
FCPS is committed to providing the safest learning environment possible for our students and is proud to lead the way by requiring COVID-19 vaccination for athletic participation. Our decision is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM), and ten other sports and medicine organizations that urge members to incorporate COVID-19 vaccination into sports physicals for student-athletes.
While we know this is a difficult decision for some families, it is an essential step that we must take to limit the duration of a pause, getting students back to the classroom and their activities sooner, but still safely. We will share more information in the coming weeks on how to provide proof of vaccination and vaccination opportunities for students.
Thank you for continuing to support our students and staff and our ongoing commitment to safe, in-person learning.
Scott S. Brabrand
Fairfax County Public Schools
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