The White House, worried that coronavirus vaccination rates among young people are lagging as the new school year approaches, unveiled on Thursday a new push to get students their shots, including enlisting pediatricians to incorporate vaccination into back-to-school sports physicals and encouraging schools to host their own vaccination clinics.
The initiative was announced by Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona as part of a broader “return to school roadmap,” aimed at getting students back to the classroom for in-person learning — and keeping them there.
Addressing reporters from the White House briefing room, Mr. Cardona issued a pointed message to Republican governors, including Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, about the steps they have taken to prevent local officials from requiring face coverings, despite federal guidance calling for people to wear masks indoors where the virus is spreading rapidly, and for universal mask wearing in schools.
“Don’t be the reason why schools are interrupted,” Mr. Cardona said. “Kids have suffered enough.”
The vaccination push comes as schools around the country are beginning to open, and will include a “week of action” starting on Saturday, with text chains and phone banks aimed at encouraging vaccination. Experts and school superintendents said in interviews that increasing vaccination among students may be a slow and uphill battle.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was authorized for people aged 12 and older in May, but young people remain far less likely than older adults to have gotten their shots. Though the nation passed President Biden’s goal of having at least 70 percent of adults at least partially vaccinated, only 40.2 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds and 50.6 percent of 16- to 17- year olds have received at least one dose, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last week the C.D.C. said it wanted in-person schooling to resume across the country, and updated its mask guidance to call for universal mask use by students, staff and visitors in schools, regardless of their vaccination status or the rate of community transmission of the virus.
“Children should return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall, with proper prevention strategies in place,” Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the C.D.C., said at a news briefing.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to preview Mr. Cardona’s announcement, said the administration is focusing on school athletics as an important path to vaccination. Millions of American students play organized sports, and some school officials are making the case that if student athletes get vaccinated, they will be able to avoid quarantining — and forfeiting their games — if they are exposed to an infected person.
To that end, the White House official said, the administration has enlisted the help of various groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, to put out guidance for doctors and to update the forms required for school physicals. Mr. Cardona and Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, are expected to visit a school vaccination clinic in Kansas next week.
But some school officials are finding that persuading parents to get their students vaccinated is a difficult task.
“For people who are for it, it’s an easy one — they support vaccination as a strong strategy to fight Covid, and they don’t see any issue with the use of public space,” said Kristi Wilson, the superintendent of the Buckeye Elementary School District, just outside Phoenix, who recently completed a term as president of AASA: The School Superintendents Association, which represents 13,000 school superintendents across the country.
“But the other side I’m hearing is that, ‘Where do you draw the line? Who’s going to administer it? Even if public health does it, is it an appropriate use of space?’ If you have a community that is very anti-vaccination, how do you manage that?” she said.