As COVID-19 hospitalizations and infections continue to decline, school districts around the country are loosening mask requirements. Georgia, on March 25, went so far as to formally ban masks in public schools. But what does that mean for Black teachers and Black students, who have much lower vaccination rates than their peers?

“It remains to be seen,” says Dr. Hugh Mighty, dean of Howard University’s College of Medicine.

“The real question is, as we lift the mask mandates, what does that mean to children in general—and certainly to Black children—if we’re not also pushing vaccines and getting vaccine rates up?” Mighty says. “Obviously, anyone who’s not vaccinated carries a higher risk of becoming infected.”

Fortunately, what’s been true in the adult world hasn’t panned out in children, Mighty says. While we have seen a large discrepancy between how the virus impacts adults, the same hasn’t been true for children. Part of it is that children don’t have chronic or underlying health conditions, Mighty explains.

But there are worries that a new variant of COVID-19 could send Americans scrambling back inside. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams planned on ending the mask mandates for kids under the age of 5, but changed his tune when he and New York City Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan announced that those between 2 and 4 years old will continue to mask up in pre-K and daycare.

While right-leaning publications like the New York Post have called for an end to this particular mandate and parents have rallied demanding an end to the policy, Adams has proven time and again in his first year to march to the beat of his own drum.

Also, COVID cases have risen (slightly) of late. Last week, the city’s health department reported that 7-day positivity rates were up 2.67% from 2.26% the week before.

“But I want to encourage everyone to get vaccinated, boosted,” said Adams to reporters last week. “And something that probably many of you are going to ask about, but we want to encourage people, if you’re in a setting where you’re not comfortable, like some of you are doing right here in this room, to wear your mask. If you don’t know the vaccination status of people who are in the room, wear your mask. We’re seeing a slight uptick and we want to be prepared, not panic.”

“As we know, in the past, cases and hospitalizations have risen in this vulnerable age group with wider community spread usually lagging a couple of weeks behind,” said Vasan on Twitter. “So we want to use every tool we have to slow that growth.

Black kids have significantly lower vaccination rates—but the real number is hard to track

While the Centers for Disease Control and state health departments all keep rigorous data on infections, hospitalizations, and vaccinations, there are key pieces of data missing. For one, only a handful of states offer breakdowns of vaccination status by both age and race/ethnicity. This is a key metric that would help the federal and state governments address pandemic inequalities.

Without in-depth tracking, “It’s difficult for us to say whether a strategy is working or not working,” Mighty says. He cited the shift from the Delta to Omicron variant as a way that detailed tracking showed a new pattern. “Because we were testing and because we were following people, we were able to literally say, hey, there’s something changing. If you’re not tracking that, you don’t have the information in real time.”

To get a sense of how Black children’s vaccination rates compare to their peers, Word In Black identified five states that break down vaccination status by both age and race/ethnicity: Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The age groups were 5 to 11, 12 to 15, and 16 and older.

The analysis found that all other races/ethnicities were at least twice as likely to be vaccinated than their Black peers. In the 5 to 11 age group, an average of 14% of Black students were vaccinated, compared to 40% of Asian and 45% of white students. In the 12 to 15 group, an average of 34% of Black students are vaccinated, compared to 66% of white and 70% of Hispanic students. And for those 16 and older, an average of 27% of Black students are vaccinated, compared to 63% of white and 83% of Hispanic students.

“You’re in a group that is driven, certainly, by parental considerations,” Mighty says. “One thing you will find is that if there is a lower group of parents who are vaccinated, it is less likely that their kids are going to be vaccinated.”

Lingering vaccine hesitancy is leading to lower vaccination rates

On top of barriers to even accessing the vaccine from coast to coast, there has been a lot of vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans. A Census Bureau survey found that possible side effects were the top reason for Black adults not wanting to get vaccinated. And when it came to why parents aren’t vaccinating their children, the top reasons were the cost of the vaccine, the parent or guardian typically doesn’t vaccinate their children, and believing other people have a higher need.

The COVID-19 vaccine is free to everyone, and health insurance is not required.

Aside from the hesitancy, Mighty says there hasn’t been as much of a push toward getting younger populations vaccinated.

“Statistically, that young group has been the ones who have been less affected in terms of percentages,” Mighty says. “Especially when you get down to the [under] 12—into that 7,8, 9,10 age group—fewer of them have been reported as dying from this or having any serious effects from that. So the risks and benefits, if you’re weighing as a parent, might be different.”

In a surprising twist, the 7-day highest positivity rates in New York, when divided by neighborhood, are in places where there aren’t as many Black people. Greenpoint, Brooklyn has a 7.1% 7-day positivity rate. In Chelsea, Manhattan, that number stands at 7.7%. The 7-day positivity rate in Central Harlem (South)/Morningside/West Harlem is 3.58%. In East Flatbush (North)/East Flatbush (South) the number stands at 1.34%. 

However, Black New Yorkers overall are the least vaccinated with 65% receiving one dose (Hispanic/Latinos are at 82% while New York’s Asian/NHPI population at 99%). Only 67% of White New Yorkers have received at least one dose of the vaccination.

What happens now?

With masks coming off, what should we expect to see in the classrooms for the rest of the school year? Mighty says it’s not a matter of hesitancy, but of understanding the risk and prevalence of the virus in your area. The best thing to do is look at the numbers in your area to be better informed of your risk, and then make a decision.

“The virus hasn’t changed. It is still there. It will still infect you,” Mighty says. “When you remove the mass, you’re still going to incur a risk.”

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Though the percentage of kids who are severely affected is and always has been lower than adults, we should still expect to see an uptick in those infected, Mighty says. And if you aren’t vaccinated, your risk is higher.

“As our kids are the least vaccinated percentages across the board, then they’re going to be the most at risk,” Mighty says.

“Because this is endemic, this is never going to be a zero risk,” Mighty says. “The virus isn’t going to pack his bags and go home.”

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