Poll Finds Howard Co. Parents Favor COVID-19 Vax Mandates. But How Do They Get Them?
As mask mandates ease across Maryland — and could even come to an end soon in public schools — quiet conversations are beginning to take place about whether school districts can impose COVID-19 vaccine mandates on students in the upcoming school year. It’s part of a broader debate over how to keep schools open even as new variants of the coronavirus continue to emerge.
A recent poll of Howard County voters taken by a local foundation that works on education and public health issues found a strong majority of residents said they would favor a COVID vaccine mandate. Foundation leaders hope the results spark discussions about vaccine mandates at the state and local levels.
But whenever that debate happens, and regardless of the merits of the arguments, there’s already a complicating factor: No one in Howard County or at state agencies seems sure about who has the authority to grant a school district permission to impose a vaccine mandate.
“How do they go about doing that? Because there has not been guidance,” said state Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D), a public health doctor who represents Howard County.
Some lawmakers in Annapolis think the uncertainty comes from a lack of political will.
In the view of the Horizon Foundation in Howard County, which commissioned the poll, the support for school vaccine mandates is incontrovertible, and local leaders should act accordingly. The poll found that 69% of likely voters favor the idea, including 58% who said they favored it strongly, while 27% opposed it, including 23% who said they opposed it strongly.
Sixty-five percent of likely voters with children under the age of 18 at home favored the policy, including 54% who favored it strongly, while 33% opposed it, including 28% who opposed it strongly.
The poll of 1,100 likely Howard County voters was conducted Dec. 9-16 by Lake Research Partners, a national Democratic polling firm. It had a 4.57-point margin of error.
“The bottom line is that there is widespread and intense support for a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for children to attend public schools in Howard County,” said Daniel Gotoff of Lake Research Partners.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the support for a vaccine mandate was most intense among Democrats.
In the poll, 89% of Democrats who were queried support the idea, including 80% who supported it strongly, compared to just 9% who opposed a mandate, including 5% who opposed it strongly. Sixty-three percent of unaffiliated voters said they supported a mandate, as did 33% of Republicans.
Those numbers could prove politically significant in a county that is becoming increasingly Democratic.
“State and local policymakers should take heed of these results as they continue to help us towards the path of recovery,” said Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation.
Howard County has among the best rates of COVID vaccinations in the state, with 85.4% of residents 12 and older having being fully vaccinated as of last week. Two-thirds of residents 18 and older were boosted, 87.4% of children 12 to 17 were boosted, and 66% of children aged 5-11 have had at least one vaccine.
“For months now, Howard County has led the way in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 through implementing proven public health strategies,” Vernick said. “These [poll] data show widespread support for adding another public health measure by requiring vaccines to help protect, students, teachers, and staff and to support quality, in-person learning for our students.”
What would it take for Howard County Public Schools — or any of the state’s 23 other school districts — to institute COVID-19 vaccine mandates?
Last fall, following a query from state Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), the state attorney general’s office said that Maryland schools can ask for the COVID-19 vaccination status of students and require proof of vaccination, even if the schools themselves are not mandating vaccines. Some policymakers saw the guidance from Sandra Benson Brantley, counsel to the General Assembly, as a way to apply vaccine mandates already in place to bring COVID-19 vaccine mandates to public schools.
But six months later, the process for doing so doesn’t seem any clearer.
Contacted by Maryland Matters, Antonia Watts, the vice chair of the Howard County Board of Education, said the board “is not the entity that mandates the current required vaccinations to attend school. It would be surprising if mandating COVID vaccinations were left up to local boards of education.”
Through a spokeswoman, Howard County’s health officer, Dr. Maura Rossman, suggested that authority for mandating COVID-19 vaccines in the county’s public schools rested with the Maryland Department of Health, local or state boards of education, or the Maryland General Assembly.
The Maryland State Board of Education has not imposed COVID vaccine mandates and seems unlikely to do so in the short term. A spokeswoman for the Maryland State Department of Education suggested the Maryland State Health Department would be the place to issue vaccine mandates.
“The state does not currently have plans to mandate COVID-19 vaccines in schools,” Andy Owen, spokesman for the Health Department, said in an email. But he did not say what a local school district would have to do if it wanted to impose a vaccine mandate of its own.
“There’s a lot of finger-pointing,” Lam said. “There’s a lot of circular finger pointing. And the Hogan administration doesn’t seem interested in providing any clarity.”
Rosapepe, who sought the attorney general’s opinion last fall, rejects the idea that legislation is needed at the state level to enable school districts to institute vaccine mandates.
“There’s no clarity needed,” he said. “The law’s as clear as it needs to be.”
Rosapepe believes what’s missing is political will among state and local health and education officials.
“It’s embarrassing,” he said. “People who are responsible aren’t taking responsibility.”
But Lam said he sees some hope.
The Horizon Foundation poll, he said, “is a prompt that opens up that entire discussion.”
(Disclosure: The Horizon Foundation is a financial supporter of Maryland Matters.)