I still remember the exhilaration I felt upon learning that my peers and I could finally return to our in-person classrooms. After a year of Zoom lectures, asynchronous exams, and more, the prospect of seeing each other again thrilled us.
However, we had not anticipated the constant fear and uncertainty that would accompany this transition. Despite implementing safety measures like masking and one-way hallways, the number of COVID-19 cases continued to rise while the number of students in our classrooms continued to drop. We couldn’t help but each wonder: Am I next?
For those of us who were vaccinated, an affirmative response typically meant a mild cold and a brief absence from school. But for many of my peers whose parents refused to vaccinate them, the implications were far greater.
One of my friends had confided in me about her parents’ firm anti-vaccine convictions. As a child, she had been hospitalized with the flu due to their dismissal of vaccinations. As the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread throughout her school community, she dreaded contracting it and transmitting it to those she cared about. Her constant anxiety made it impossible to concentrate at school. Moreover, she lost her first job due to her workplace’s vaccination requirements.
Another peer shared with me her parents’ stubborn refusal to vaccinate her and her siblings. In turn, she feared contracting the virus from school and transmitting it to her immunocompromised grandparents. Only after weeks of presenting elaborate slideshows and creative arguments to her parents did they finally relent.
However, accessing a life-saving medical intervention ought not to be this difficult. Nor should students relinquish incredible opportunities, forego their education, or sacrifice their well-being due to their parents’ beliefs. Therefore, high schoolers ought to have the right to self-consent to vaccinations.
Despite overcoming the latest Omicron variant, COVID-19 cases remain high in the United States, especially in urban areas like New York City (NYC). Current data reveals roughly 4,000 positive cases per day in NYC. Because schools serve as ideal sites for SARS-CoV-2 transmission, students must be properly vaccinated. Unfortunately, a recent NYU Grossman School of Medicine study found that vaccination rates in NYC high schools range from 38.6 percent to 59.7 percent, suggesting that almost half of all NYC high school students remain unprotected. Moreover, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus mutates and spreads, emerging variants may drive new COVID-19 waves. This past October, the CDC explicitly recommended adding the COVID-19 vaccine to routine immunization schedules. In other words, the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to threaten our communities.
Parents’ vaccine hesitancy significantly contributes to these low youth vaccination rates. Nearly 40 percent of New Yorkers have reported concerns about vaccinating their children while 29 percent of New Yorkers have stated their intentions not to vaccinate their children at all.
In turn, current vaccination protocols that require parental consent prevent thousands of students from acquiring vaccinations. Such protocols also obstruct a wider array of students from similarly accessing the vaccine—those who have overworked parents, those who face language barriers, and those who live apart from their parents, to name a few. Therefore, by allowing minors to self-consent to vaccinations, we would empower students with the autonomy to drive their own well-being and educational opportunities.
The state of New York already offers minors considerable agency over their health care. For example, minors of any age can receive the HPV vaccine without parental permission. Minors can also self-consent to birth control, abortion, STIs and HIV/AIDS testing, and treatment, sexual assault care, as well as mental health and substance abuse treatment. Moreover, other states like Alabama, Oregon, and Rhode Island already allow minors as young as fourteen to self-consent to any FDA-approved immunization. Therefore, a significant precedent exists for allowing minors to make decisions concerning their own bodies, and vaccinations should not be an exception.
Importantly, such a policy would encompass all FDA-approved vaccines, including the flu, meningitis, and mpox vaccines. In particular, the ability to self-consent to mpox vaccinations would preserve the safety of LGBTQ+ students, empowering them to vaccinate themselves without first disclosing their sexuality to their parents.
Across the country, youth have stepped up to defend their bodily autonomy, whether that be through fighting for abortion access, transgender rights, and more. Having worked with students in California to introduce a bill establishing students’ right to self-consent to vaccinations, I now urge New York lawmakers to affirm youth agency and prioritize public well-being by enshrining a similar policy in law. Only by allowing youth to make their own decisions can we even begin to make the changes necessary to secure the health and well-being of our communities.
Cady Chen is an undergraduate student.