Schools across Kansas ramp up efforts to get students — and their parents — vaccinated
For individuals first getting the COVID-19 vaccine, the range of emotions typically involve jubilation, relief and a sense of hope that things are returning to normal.
But when bleary-eyed teenagers are the ones getting the shots, the prevailing attitude is much more nonchalant.
"I barely felt it," said Ainslee Bolejack, a freshman at Shawnee Heights High School.
Hundreds of students from public and private schools in Topeka gathered in a line out the door to wait their turn to get vaccinated at a Topeka High School vaccination clinic Monday.
"We were surprised that so many people were here," Richard Bolejack, Ainslee's father, said. "We were like 'wow' because we didn't think that would be the case."
School districts in Topeka and across the state are ramping up their efforts to vaccinate, as officials push students and parents to take advantage of newly expanded eligibility for the shots.
In Topeka Unified School District 501 alone, more than 1,000 students already have been vaccinated in recent weeks, according to superintendent Tiffany Anderson.
Most of those kids are high schoolers 16 and older. But last week a panel of advisers for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave their formal recommendation to administer the Pfizer vaccine to individuals as young as 12 years of age.
That meant a lot of younger faces at a vaccination event Monday at Topeka High School.
Anderson expected that, over the course of the two days, the total number of doses given out will approach 1,000. Events will continue in the weeks to come, including a drive-through vaccination clinic over the summer, she said.
The students were joined by Gov. Laura Kelly, who touted the effort as the state aims to increase its vaccine uptake.
While Kansas is drifting away from offering mass vaccination events, she noted the school events were still important.
School districts from Manhattan to Olathe are conducting similar clinics and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, as well as the Kansas National Guard, is chipping in support as needed.
But the governor pointed to a statewide drop in demand for the shots, stressing that the next frontier would need to involve a greater focus on making the shots available at doctor's offices throughout Kansas.
"We thought it very important to take the vaccines to the people, rather than expecting to come to something like this," Kelly said. "They made it very clear that wasn't going to happen anymore."
Officials hope for return to normalcy at school
As of Monday, 44.7% of the state's residents had gotten at least one vaccine dose, according to CDC data. KDHE figures show 19,370 Kansans under the age of 18 have gotten shots.
The event on Monday did appear to convince at least a few parents to join their children in getting vaccinated, something public health officials hope will continue into the future.
"They felt really comfortable coming to the school but didn't feel comfortable, maybe going to a hospital organization or some place that they just don't know," Anderson said. "Schools are the center of the community."
For adults, many are hopeful that updated guidance from the CDC released last week will be a carrot to encourage vaccine uptake. Those guidelines would allow fully vaccinated Americans to discard masks and the need for social distancing in both outdoor and indoor settings.
And while some groups, including the nation's largest nursing union, have argued the decision to lift the mask recommendation was premature, Kelly said she had no hesitancy about Kansas matching the decision.
"We just decided to go with the experts," Kelly said. "This is what these people do for a living. ... I really didn't have any hesitancy. I would have preferred a longer heads-up, a longer runway to get the information out, but it is what it is."
And for students, vaccination could make a return to normalcy more likely when students return to classes in the fall.
That could include the easing of mask requirements, lifting visitor restrictions and gathering limits and allowing students to more freely mix in the classroom and on school grounds.
Manhattan-Ogden Unified School District 383 announced Monday, for instance, that fully vaccinated individuals would not need to wear masks on school grounds.
"By offering this to our young people, it really allows us to continue to give assurance that as a community, we're all doing our part," Anderson said. "And the sense of normalcy that we want to restore is much more likely in the future."