Loudoun County Public Schools superintendent Scott Ziegler announced Tuesday that all students participating in Virginia High School League winter and spring sports will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by November 8.
“This vaccination requirement for our student-athletes demonstrates our commitment to the safety of everyone within our schools and communities,” Ziegler said in a statement released Tuesday evening.
“While LCPS acknowledges this is a difficult decision for some families, it is a necessary step that we must take to limit disruptions to the learning environment,” he said.
Students participating in any out-of-season practices during the entirety of the 2021-2022 school year will also be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the statement. The vaccination requirement will not apply to students participating in the school system’s five main fall sports: football, cheerleading, golf, volleyball and cross country.
The Food and Drug Administration on August 23 gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for individuals aged 16 or older. Federal officials said the same vaccine is eligible for use among 12 to 15-year-olds under emergency use authorization.
Mike McCall, director of communications for the Virginia High School League (VHSL), said the action taken by LCPS was not a mandate from VHSL, and that school districts have the authority to make such a decision on their own.
Loudoun County’s Public Health Director, Dr. David Goodfriend on Wednesday said a disproportionate number of school-related outbreaks in the community the previous school year could be traced back to youth sports.
“As the new school year starts, our current focus is how best to minimize disruption in education due to students being sent home under isolation or quarantine. Key to this is maximizing those mitigating factors under our control, of which vaccination is the most effective mitigation strategy. This is particularly true in team sports where mask use and 6-foot distancing cannot be maintained,” Goodfriend said.
In the LCPS statement, Ziegler said student-athletes were a “particularly vulnerable group,” since they’re required to go off-campus and compete against student-athletes in other schools. “The majority of past COVID-related disruptions to instruction for our high school students have come as a result of exposure during athletic activities,” he said.
LCPS will collaborate with the Loudoun County Health Department to make sure students who want to obtain a vaccine will be able to do so, school officials said in the statement. They also said the November 8 deadline should allow unvaccinated students “sufficient time” to meet the new requirement.
School administrators will allow exceptions to the vaccine requirement due to a medical condition or “bona fide religious belief,” according to the announcement. In such cases, students who remain unvaccinated will be required to submit a negative COVID-19 test result once per week after any exposure to the disease before they’re allowed to resume athletic activities.
Student athletes who meet the noted exemption requirements but fail to submit negative COVID-19 test results weekly will not be able to participate in school sports, administrators said in the statement.
On Wednesday, many parents of teens who will be affected by the mandate reacted to the news with disapproval.
Kolleen Tehan, whose daughter participates in two high school sports, said she does not believe the school should mandate a vaccine which does not have FDA approval for her daughter’s age group.
“The vaccine is too new,” Tehan said. “There’s well over a 99.9 percent survival rate if she has COVID and it’s not worth the risk.”
“The government does not have the right to mandate how I choose to protect my child. Freedoms are being taken away and America needs to wake up,” Tehan said.
Tehan said she is concerned that Ziegler’s decision will pit children against their parents, who are making a difficult choice. She said it will also pit children against their friends, who will then place peer pressure on them to get the vaccine.
“My daughter will never understand my decision to protect her,” she said. “Sports are her passion. The biggest issue is we just don’t know enough about the vaccine yet.”
Kristine Kozlowski’s child is a high school junior who plays sports and said Wednesday she feels the decision to have the vaccine should be a family choice, not mandated by the school system.
“Medical choices should be a family conversation,” Kozlowski said. “This is infringing on a parental duty. This isn’t the kids’ fault. They shouldn’t be penalized in something like recreation which is important to their mental growth,” she said.
Elizabeth Vermette, a parent of two high school-age teens in Ashburn, called the vaccine mandate another example of “crazy government overreach.”
“If you want to get your kids vaccinated, then do so,” Vermette said. “Most of these kids have been out playing club sports over the last 18 months and they probably all have natural immunity.”
“Why are they targeting athletes,” she said. “You are pushing parents in a corner and forcing them to risk their child’s physical health for their emotional and social well-being.”