‘One step closer to normal’: Memphis school vaccine clinic for children ages 5-11 brings excitement, relief

A girl winces as a nurse gives her the COVID shot.
A nurse gives Rosie McCade, a fourth-grader at Memphis Virtual School, the COVID vaccine at a Shelby County Schools vaccination clinic on Friday, Nov. 19. (Samantha West / Chalkbeat)

Since her parents were vaccinated in May, Rosie McCade has been looking forward to when she, too, would be protected from COVID and able to get back into a classroom for the first time since the pandemic began in March 2020.

On Friday, that day finally came — but Rosie’s excitement wasn’t evident in the moment. As the nurse brought a needle to Rosie’s left arm, she closed her eyes and cringed in preparation, while her mom, Kim Ryan, cheered her on and recorded the moment on video. 

Thirty seconds later, though, Rosie declared, “it wasn’t that bad.”

“It’s one step closer to back to normal,” Ryan said with a sigh of relief, smiling at her daughter. “It’s an awesome feeling to know we’re one step closer to getting her back in real school, in a classroom.”

Rosie was one of hundreds of children, accompanied by their parents, lining up for their first dose of the COVID vaccine Friday afternoon at the Shelby County Schools Board of Education building. The vaccination site, a collaboration between the Shelby County Health Department and Shelby County Schools, comes nearly three weeks after U.S. health officials approved Pfizer’s COVID shot for children between the age of 5 and 11. 

For district administrators, local health officials, parents, and students alike, Friday’s vaccination clinic marked a momentous day during the third school year impacted by the pandemic. 

Memphis follows several of the nation’s largest school districts that jumped to offer vaccinations to thousands of students in school clinic settings. Two days after federal officials gave emergency clearance for child vaccinations, New York City public schools announced vaccine clinics for the following week. And, both Chicago and Denver public schools canceled classes for a day to encourage students to get the shot.

About 5% of Shelby County’s 5-11 population are vaccinated so far, said Dr. Michelle Taylor, director of the Shelby County Health Department. While it’s a solid start, events like the one on Friday are key to giving children another layer of protection against the virus, she said.

With the challenges COVID has thrown at schools and families, it was fitting for the district to host a vaccination clinic, said Patricia Bafford, district senior director of health services.

“This is a safe place for families, who already have relationships with their schools,” Bafford said, noting the district and health department are already talking about hosting another clinic. “There’s a lot of excitement, knowing we can do this for our families.”

The start of this school year in August marked the first time the majority of the Memphis district’s 110,000-some students returned to in-person school, after nearly a year and a half of mostly virtual learning. But the first several months of the school year have been a rollercoaster of elevated pediatric COVID cases during the statewide surge, whiplash from ongoing political battles over school mask mandates, and educational chaos in quarantine, as educators struggled to teach remotely, under state online learning restrictions, and parents juggled full-time jobs with tutoring.

Minutes after two of Miria Hendrickson’s daughters got vaccinated, “thankful” was the first word that came to her mind. 

The last two school years brought a total upheaval for Hendrickson’s family. With her two daughters, 6-year-old Marisabela and 8-year-old Evangelina, at home with her five days a week all last school year, Hendrickson had to send her 3-year-old to full-time daycare. Hendrickson, a former educator, wasn’t able to care for her youngest child while teaching her two oldest children, she said.

While it’s been great to see Evangelina and Marisabela return to University Campus School this year, Hendrickson said, it hasn’t been without worry — making the vaccination all the more exciting. With her third child at home, and another baby on the way, Hendrickson and her husband are grateful two of their children are better protected, and are less likely to bring the virus home.

For Kim Ryan and her daughter, Friday was significant — because it means Rosie soon may be able to return to a classroom. Ryan and her husband made the difficult decision to enroll her in Memphis Virtual School this year, as they felt the threat of COVID remained too great.

Although virtual school is going well, Rosie is excited to get back in school. She misses her classroom, friends, and teachers.

“It’d be a lot easier to learn in a classroom rather than on a laptop,” Rosie said.

While none of it has been easy, Ryan is just glad to see her daughter happy, and on her way back to school.

“She’s been waiting for this day for a long time,” she said.

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