Newark mayor proposes vaccinating students in school to boost city’s low rate

A young woman in a Def Leppard shirt receives a dose of a COVID vaccine.

With most Newark students heading into the new school year unvaccinated against COVID-19, the city will start giving shots in schools, Mayor Ras Baraka said Friday.

Newark will “pass a policy” allowing parents to grant permission for their children to get vaccinated, Baraka said on Facebook Live, without elaborating on the proposed policy. Those children will then get the shots in school, sparing families from having to travel to clinics. If the plan works, it also will increase the city’s low youth vaccination rate.

Just 30% of Newark children ages 12-17 had received at least one COVID vaccine dose by July 19, Chalkbeat reported Thursday. Newark’s rate trails the average nationally and in New Jersey, where more than 40% of eligible children have been vaccinated. (Children 11 and younger are not yet eligible to get the shot.)

The city’s low rate could cause problems this fall when New Jersey schools must fully reopen, bringing students and educators into close proximity even as the highly contagious Delta variant tears through the state. Unless more Newark students get inoculated before September, COVID infections could surge and schools would be forced to return to remote instruction, Baraka warned.

“What will happen is, we’re going to get outbreaks, and we’re going to wind up having to close schools down,” he said, “if we do not make sure people are vaccinated.”

The risks are not evenly spread across Newark. Nearly 70% of eligible children in the city’s East Ward have had at least one vaccine shot, compared with less than 20% of children in the South Ward, according to the latest city data.

Other cities that have struggled to get young people vaccinated are taking aggressive steps to ramp up their rates. Jersey City is calling families weekly to urge them to get their children vaccinated, New York City is giving shots at summer school sites, and other communities are offering financial incentives to people who get the vaccine — an approach that President Biden is pushing

Newark had not announced any similar strategies until Friday when Baraka said the city would “begin doing vaccinations in school.” However, it was unclear whether the campaign will start this summer or in the fall, and a City Hall spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for clarification.

Baraka will need the cooperation of the Newark school district, which the elected school board controls, not the mayor. A district spokesperson did not immediately respond to an email asking about the mayor’s plan.

In the meantime, the city will continue offering free COVID vaccines to residents 12 and older at sites across the city, Baraka said. Residents can also call 211 to schedule a free Lyft ride to get their shot.

“Our kids are not vaccinated at the rate we need them to be,” the mayor said Friday. “We have to begin to do a little better than what we are doing.”

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