Community reactions to vaccine mandate

Vidhatrie Keetha and Jiya Chatterjee

The school issued a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all eligible employees and students during the 2021-2022 school year, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly wrote in an email to the school community. All exemptions from the policy were reviewed by a committee headed by Kelly and the school’s medical director Dr. Miriam Levitt.

The school had been considering a vaccine mandate since the beginning of March 2020. As early as March I started informing employees and parents that we were heading in the direction of mandating the vaccine,” Kelly wrote in an email. “In doing so I was able to fold feedback — both pro and con — into our decision making.”

The deliberation process involved hearing from experts in the field, personnel from other independent day schools, and several colleges and universities about their thoughts regarding the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, Kelly wrote. By June, it was clear that mandating the vaccine would be a necessary step in order to offer in-person instruction with minimal disruption, he wrote.

The school is allowing applications for religious and medical exemptions because the New York State Department of Health has not made the COVID vaccine a requirement for all schools, school nurse DeAnna Cooper said. Currently, the state does not allow for religious exemptions to other vaccines that are required for school attendance, she said. 

Medical exemptions from the vaccine mandate include allergies to any component of the COVID vaccine or a condition that would prevent someone from getting the vaccine. Both medical and religious exemptions were reviewed by the committee, as there was no single set of criteria used to approve or deny a request for an exemption. Families, medical practitioners, and religious leaders could participate in submitting a request for an exemption, Kelly wrote.  

If the school chooses to remove the mask mandate, unvaccinated students — including those whose exemptions have been approved and those under the age of 12 — will still be required to wear masks at all times, Kelly said. 

Kelly acknowledges that some members of the community are not fully on board with the mandate, he wrote. To those who object to the school’s policy, it is important to remember that attendance is voluntary [since] we are an independent day school, not a public school,” Kelly wrote. The school is willing to help families move to new schools if parents or guardians are against participating in the school’s vaccination mandate, he wrote. 

Overall support for the vaccine mandate remains high among Upper Division (UD) students. According to an anonymous Record poll completed by 225 UD students, 91.6 percent of respondents support the mandate, while 5.3 percent do not support the mandate, and 3.1 percent of students are unsure about whether they support it. The poll found that three students out of 225, or 1.3 percent, would not have gotten vaccinated if the mandate had not been put in place, and three students were uncertain if they would have gotten vaccinated.

Although Naomi Yaeger (10) was not surprised by the school’s decision to issue a vaccine mandate, she still thought that it was a significant step for the school to take, she said. “I personally think everyone should get the vaccine — I think it’s a great protector against COVID,” Yaeger said. “But I thought that mandating was a very big step to take, and that it kind of takes away people’s individualism to make their own choices, and decide whether or not they personally want to take it.”

Yaeger had hoped the school would instead choose to strongly encourage students to get vaccinated because she believes that parents have the right to make decisions for their own children and family, she said.

“My mom’s a doctor, and she got vaccinated very early, but she was a little nervous to vaccinate me and my siblings, because she was like, ‘there’s not that much research on it, I don’t want to expose [my] kids,’” Yaeger said. “Even though she was a doctor, she still wanted to think about it a little more.”

Peter Yu (11) also said that mandating the vaccine limits personal freedom. “Let’s say it’s raining. If you don’t want to get wet, you can get an umbrella, but why force everyone else to get an umbrella?” he said. “I’m very pro-vaccine, [but] I think that by taking away the choice [to get vaccinated or not], you’re sort of limiting people’s freedom.”

In addition to limiting personal freedom, Yu thinks that the mandate is not necessary, he said. “I feel like if the school’s point in asking people to get vaccinated is to protect us from COVID [and] to lower the mortality rate, kids who want to take it will take it nonetheless, regardless of the mandate,” he said. 

Theodore Ganea (12) was not surprised by the vaccine mandate, and he believes the mandate is a step forward in terms of effectively fighting the virus and allowing other restrictions put in place due to the pandemic to be removed. “Compared to a lot of the other measures, like the masks or the dividers, I find the vaccine mandate to be not so big a deal,” he said. “They just put a shot into your blood and you’re done.”

Ganea does not believe that the mandate infringes upon students’ or faculty members’ individual rights to choose whether or not they want to get vaccinated, because remaining unvaccinated endangers the lives of others in the community, he said. 

“It’s never been a right of personal liberty to do stuff that gets other people hurt. For example, we don’t allow drunk driving,” he said. “The reason why we don’t allow drunk driving is not necessarily because drunk drivers are on purpose trying to kill people, it’s just because they are not so aware when they’re driving, and they’re at more risk to endanger others.” 

Samuel Siegel (11) thinks that getting vaccinated is not just about protecting yourself from the virus, but it is also about protecting others in the community, he said. “The school has every right to say ‘you have to get this vaccine or you can’t be a part of the community’,” he said.

Dr. Anitha Srinivasan P ’23 ’25 also said that requiring vaccines is important for ensuring the health of the school community. “[The school] is making some bold but absolutely right moves,” she said. “Not only is this for my kids’ education, but it’s the right thing to do for public health.”

Daniela Koplin (12) said that the vaccine mandate should not be treated differently from any other vaccine that students are required to get, and that the main reason students may feel uncomfortable with getting vaccinated can be attributed to media coverage of the vaccines.

“If people do feel like [the vaccine mandate] is an infringement in not allowing them to have autonomy over themselves, it’s more because of the media,” Koplin said. “I have a feeling that if there weren’t as many vaccine skeptics in the media [and] in the government, then people will not be feeling this. It’s just because it’s a publicized issue.”

Ricky Lipsey (12) believes making the vaccine mandatory was the obvious decision for the school to make because the school is a private institution that is liable for the safety of its students. Since the vaccines are effective, requiring vaccines would allow students to feel more comfortable coming to school, he said. 

Isabel Mavrides-Calderon (11), who was online throughout the 2020-2021 school year due to a health condition that put her at high risk for contracting the virus, feels relieved about the policy, she said. Because of the mandate, Mavrides-Calderon feels comfortable attending in person for the 2021-2022 school year, she said. 

I would have definitely stayed online if there wasn’t a mandate,” Mavrides-Calderon said. “Vaccines are proven to be effective, and I feel a lot safer as an immunocompromised student.”

Anya Sen (9), who is new to the school, was also eager to return to school in-person two weeks ago. At Sen’s old school, she was one of the only students who elected to be virtual during the previous school year. “With Horace Mann’s vaccination mandate, my family and I feel safer about me going fully in person.”

“Dr. Kelly’s informed guidance last year on masks [and] testing and social distancing proved to be extremely successful,” Cathy Trentalancia P ’08 ’23 said. “I believe Dr. Kelly’s policies this year will once again reflect comprehensive due diligence, and we will have another successful year.”

While there has been disagreement regarding the mandate within the community, Kelly remains optimistic for the upcoming school year, he said. “We are fortunate to begin the school year with the overwhelming majority of students and employees vaccinated against COVID-19.”