As Schools Reopen, Vaccination Rates Among Teenagers Range From One Extreme To The Other

WBEZ finds wealthier areas show much higher teen vaccination rates. With no immunization mandate, local districts face a season of uncertainty.

Christine Allegretti administers a COVID-19 vaccine dose to Ariana Riley, 13, at CPS' Michele Clark High School during a clinic on Aug. 12, 2021. “We are trying to keep her safe because school is about to start," her father, Marcus Riley, said. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Christine Allegretti administers a COVID-19 vaccine dose to Ariana Riley, 13, at CPS' Michele Clark High School during a clinic on Aug. 12, 2021. “We are trying to keep her safe because school is about to start," her father, Marcus Riley, said. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As Schools Reopen, Vaccination Rates Among Teenagers Range From One Extreme To The Other

WBEZ finds wealthier areas show much higher teen vaccination rates. With no immunization mandate, local districts face a season of uncertainty.

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Destiny Vasquez is terrified of shots and her mother is so suspicious of the medical establishment that she doesn’t go to doctors or hospitals. “She thinks they are trying to kill her,” the 16-year-old said.

That kept the rising junior at Washington High School on Chicago’s Southeast from getting the COVID-19 vaccine all spring and summer long. But recently she’s had a change of heart.

“I feel like I have no choice because I am going back to school,” Destiny said. “If I want to be safe, I should probably get the vaccine. But I understand why people won’t.”

Across the Chicago area, there are thousand of young people like Destiny who haven’t gotten vaccinated, many of whom are also conflicted about whether to get the shot. And, in interviews, many of these young people say they are following the lead of their parents in opting not to get vaccinated.

In the six-county Chicagoland area, 45% of 12- to 17-year-olds on average are fully vaccinated, according to a WBEZ analysis of state data as of Aug. 9. But within that population, the vaccination rates vary widely.  On Chicago’s South Side, there are 10 ZIP codes that still have vaccination rates under 25%.

Meanwhile, in some North Side neighborhoods like Edgewater, Lincoln Park and Lakeview, and in some northwest and western suburbs, like Schaumburg and Oak Park, vaccination rates are 75% or higher.

As is the case with adults, the differences cut across racial and socioeconomic lines. Though there are exceptions in conservative pockets, the richer and whiter the ZIP code, the more likely it is that middle and high schoolers are vaccinated, WBEZ’s analysis finds.

This has major consequences for teenagers in terms of potentially contracting COVID-19 and the way their schools operate in the fall. Three times more 12- to 17-year-olds tested positive in Illinois for COVID-19 in the first week of August compared to the first week of July. Every county in the Chicago metro area is seeing an increase in youth cases, according to Illinois Department of Public Health data.

Administrators at high schools in communities where virtually every teen is vaccinated are far less worried about disruptions due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

“I do have a sense that our staff will be much more relieved coming into this year than they were last year,” said Jeff Howard, principal of Lisle High School. Close to 90% of 12- to 17-year-olds in west suburban Lisle are fully vaccinated, according to the data.

Howard said knowing that a high percentage of his students are vaccinated allows the school to put more attention elsewhere.

“We’re going to be focused on how our kids are learning rather than me sitting in meetings, learning about the delta variant, or all of these other variants that are impacting a lot of people who don’t have the vaccine,” Howard said.

Meanwhile, some suburbs and all of the public high schools in Chicago face another year of uncertainty. Public high schools in the city draw students from all over. Only about 25% of Chicago high school students attend their neighborhood school. As a result, none can count on a population of mostly vaccinated students even if it is located in a ZIP code with a high vaccination rate.

Some high school students in Chicago are already predicting they will find themselves back learning from home — a possibility school district leaders have so far refused to address publicly.

“I don’t think it is going to be safe because kids are going to be kids,” said William Stokes, an incoming sophomore at Kenwood High School on the South Side. “Someone is going to come to school with COVID and cough and then cases are going to build up and then we will be back to closing schools.”

William got vaccinated in order to play sports. Otherwise, he would have to get tested for COVID-19 weekly. But he doesn’t think any of his friends have gotten the shots.

A parent’s choice trickles down

Destiny said she started leaning toward getting vaccinated against COVID-19 when her boyfriend suggested it would make her safer and ease her anxiety.

“School gives me panic attacks anyway and with COVID it is even worse,” she said. “My school is extremely packed, like you can’t even walk through the hallways during passing periods without literally being squished and now with COVID here, that’s even more extremely unsafe.”

Destiny’s mother won’t take her to get the shot and Destiny isn’t planning to tell her she wants to get it. She lives with her father and he says it’s her choice. She’s now looking for a place to get the vaccine.

But she won’t be fully vaccinated by Aug. 30, when school starts. And she’ll have a lot of company. Only 20% of 12- to 17-year-olds in the ZIP code where she lives and where her school is located have received both shots. Another 10% were partially vaccinated as of last week. 

In interviews with WBEZ, many teens say they are influenced by social media posts that make them question the long-term consequences of taking the vaccine. At the same time, many also said they were conflicted about getting the vaccine because they want to be safe and yearn for a normal school year.

Orlando Rivera is also going to a high school where most students will be unvaccinated. He goes to Englewood STEM High School, which is in a ZIP code where only 16% of 12- to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated.

Another 9% are like Orlando, with one shot behind him and another to go. Orlando said his friends told him not to do it, warning him that the vaccine is a way for the government to put a chip in people. They told him it’s “weird that it was developed so fast,” he said.

Orlando’s family also is generally wary of doctors. “I am Puerto Rican,” he said. “So all illnesses are treated with Vicks on my chest and homemade soup. They [his family] are not scared of the coronavirus.”

But Orlando’s mother told him he could decide for himself. He said the high death rate for COVID-19 was one reason he got the shot. He’s also asthmatic and is uncomfortable breathing under a mask. He was hoping to avoid a mask in school and is disappointed by the current mask mandate.

Both Washington and Englewood STEM tend to draw students from the South Side, where vaccination rates are low.

For other teens, their parents making it hard for them to getting vaccinated.

Yobany Trinidad, a sophomore at Morton East High School in the near west suburb of Cicero, said he tried to get vaccinated, but was turned away because he didn’t have a parent with him.

“My mom and my stepdad, they’ve been working 24/7 and they each have two jobs and they’re basically busy all the time,” Yobany said. He is hoping they make time once the school year gets underway.

The mostly Latino middle class suburb of Cicero has a relatively high vaccination rate for 12- to 17-year-olds. As of last week, more than 60% had gotten at least one shot.

Yobany Trinidad, in a maroon shirt, is a member of the Fuerza Youth Center, which is part of Corazon Community Services in Cicero. The group recently hosted a COVID-19 vaccination clinic. Courtesy of Fuerza Youth Center / WBEZ

Schools aim to welcome all students — vaccinated or not

School district officials must figure out how to run schools where vaccinated and unvaccinated students can safely and comfortably attend class together. In Chicago, what to do when COVID-19 cases show up in classrooms is a major sticking point between the Chicago Teachers Union and the school district as they try to hammer out an agreement before school reopens.

The teachers union wants all exposed students and staff to return to remote learning and quarantine for 14 days, as they did last year.

But Chicago Public Schools officials want to limit quarantining, for the most part, to only those who are unvaccinated. They note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people who are vaccinated don’t have to quarantine, even if exposed.

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said school district officials want to avoid remote learning at all costs, but given the high unvaccinated rate, she thinks it’s inevitable.

“If you carve out different regions in the city, some have vaccination rates comparable to Arkansas, Florida, Georgia,” Davis Gates said, noting that some schools in those states have already closed as cases skyrocketed. “And I think that’s how we should be thinking through what we put into place. Instability should be built into the agreement.”

As the CTU and the school district work out their agreement, principals are trying to get ready for the first day of school with limited information.

Charles Anderson, principal of Michele Clark High School in Austin, said he’ll do whatever he’s told in terms of quarantining. But he knows one thing for sure: He wants to ensure that unvaccinated students don’t feel like they are being rejected at school.

“If there is a hiccup and we have to stay home, we still want to be as welcoming as possible for them,” Anderson said “What we have to remember is that our students are going through a lot and so we want to be able to support them socially and emotionally.”

Clark has been hosting weekly COVID-19 vaccine clinics throughout the summer. Despite that, just 18% of teens in Austin are fully vaccinated. Anderson said he wants the vaccine site to stay into the school year, but he doesn’t know what CPS has planned.

Many school leaders like Anderson are struggling with how to promote the vaccine without alienating students and families who are opposed.

“We don’t want to browbeat someone because they’re not vaccinated, or celebrate those who are vaccinated to make other people feel bad,” said Nathaniel Cunningham, superintendent of Thornton Township School District 205 in the south suburbs. “What we want to do is make sure that they have the opportunities, that we make sure they have information if they need it, and we make sure they have access to it.”

The district covers parts of Harvey and Dolton where the vaccination rate for teenagers is 16%. Cunningham said the district has tried to instill a sense of personal choice for students over their school career. That carries over into whether students should get vaccinated. He thinks people in his school community may have been slow to get vaccinated over the summer months when COVID-19 cases decreased.

“Now with the surge, we are seeing a lot more people looking to get vaccinated,” Cunningham said. ”We have a plan to make sure that as long as the parents want our students to be vaccinated, we have a place to make sure that they can be vaccinated.”

Cunningham said the district had to cancel many typical school events last year. He hopes the prospects of homecoming activities and prom will encourage students to get vaccinated.

But the first step is assuring young people and especially parents that the vaccine is safe.

Dr. Daniel Johnson, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago, said some parents are hesitant because they hear about rare complications associated with the vaccine. He said complications from COVID-19 are a greater risk to children than the vaccine.

“Schools are very safe environments,” Johnson said. “We learned that before the vaccine was available. Now we know that even more so because as more and more people get vaccinated, the risk of spread within a school setting gets lower and lower.”

Sarah Karp and Susie An cover education for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter and @soosieon. Charmaine Runes is WBEZ’s data/visuals reporter. Follow her on Twitter @maerunes.