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Rochester-area districts follow state in advocating for vaccines ahead of school year

In Olmsted County, 62% of 12- to 15-year-olds have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Of that same age group, 54% have received both doses.

Vaccine
A COVID-19 vaccination is prepared to be administered. Forum News Service file photo

Although there are still unknowns surrounding the pandemic, the upcoming school year in southeast Minnesota shows the promise of being more stable than the last. Credit one thing: COVID-19 vaccines.

The Minnesota Department of Education has started a "vax to school" campaign, aimed at increasing the number of vaccinated people ahead of the school year. Local officials are pursuing the same goal, even if they're not necessarily connected to the state's overall messaging.

"We know that the vaccine is one of the very best ways to to be able to not only protect our students but also our staff, their families, and our students' families," said Heather Mueller, commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Education. "We are really doing everything we can to really bring this to the forefront."

ALSO READ: Rochester Public Schools reviews discipline disparities as reporting to human rights commission winds down

They're advocating for the vaccines from multiple angles. Mueller said students are eligible for the vaccination incentives. The state also released a video on the topic, with educators around the state encouraging people to get vaccinated.

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In Olmsted County, 62% of 12- to 15-year-olds have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Of that same age group, 54% have received both doses. The percentages are even higher for people ages 16 to 17. For that Olmsted County group, 74% have received at least one dose and 68% have received two doses.

That's higher than the statewide numbers. In Minnesota overall, only 37% of 12- to 15-year-olds have received both doses. Among 16- to 17-year-olds, only 48% have received both doses.

Kent Pekel, interim superintendent for Rochester Public Schools, said the local numbers are county-wide statistics and are not representative of RPS specifically. He said the district is working on obtaining more specific data on which to base its response.

"The more data we can get on where we actually are with vaccinations, the better we can actually build the strategy," Pekel said. "The priority is to keep kids in school and learning, and that's a critical priority."

While the county percentages may not reflect the exact situation for school districts, they do provide a general baseline. Among counties in southeast Minnesota, Olmsted County's vaccinated population that is larger than many others.

Among 12- to 15-year-olds in Mower County, for example, only 32% have received two doses, more than 20 percentage points behind Olmsted County. Fillmore County, just south of Olmsted, is even lower, with just 29% of its 12- to 15-year-olds having received both doses of the vaccine.

School districts are trying to drive up those percentages as much as possible.

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"We all want a school year that’s as close to normal as possible, and vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic," Winona Public Schools wrote on its website under the heading "Vax to School, Minnesota — We need your help!"

Pekel said Rochester's school district is actively working at increasing the number of vaccinated students. He said the district will be working with Olmsted County Public Health to have vaccination clinics in each school where the students are old enough to receive the vaccine.

Graham Briggs, director of Olmsted Public Health, reiterated that, saying public health is working with school districts in the county to increase the number of vaccinated individuals. Even though vaccines have been available for some time, he believes it is possible to increase the percentage.

There are segments of the population that are opposed to getting the vaccine.

But, Briggs said, there are other segments that may not be opposed to the vaccine, but haven't had an opportunity to get it yet. That could be because of transportation issues, conflicting time commitments, or any number of other reasons.

It's because of that, he said, that it's important to take the vaccines to where people can readily access them, such as in the schools.

"Part of what we want to do in public health is go to where people are at, and not ask them to come to us," Briggs said.

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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