One of the first things 13-year-old Mia Lopez is going to do once she is fully vaccinated is go to Universal Studios in Florida with her eighth-grade class.

The St. George Episcopal School student wouldn’t have felt as comfortable on an airplane before the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children 12 to 15 years old on May 10. Three days later, she and her mom, Thi Lopez, sat inside Wonderland of the Americas mall, where Mia rolled up her sleeve and got her first dose.

For Lopez, getting her daughter vaccinated against COVID-19 means taking a step toward normalcy, if such a thing exists. She said Mia is cautious and rarely removes her mask around other people.

“I’m happy,” Mia said during her 10-minute, post-shot waiting period. “At last, I’m vaccinated.”

Many schools began encouraging their younger students to get vaccinated last week, alerting families to vaccination clinic opportunities throughout San Antonio and partnering with vaccine providers to set aside shots for their students. School health officials said getting more students vaccinated than just those aged 16 and older would help ensure a safer school environment.

But Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting public schools from mandating masks on campus after June 4 placed a greater sense of urgency on the need to get as many students vaccinated as possible before summer school starts in June, school officials said.

Staff and students at the San Antonio Independent School District test positive for COVID-19 every week, and masks and social distancing were “two key mitigators of risk,” said Toni Thompson, associate superintendent for human resources. Social distancing has become more difficult with more students coming to school in person, and now those students may choose not to wear masks.

“It’s all the more important for folks to do what’s most important now, which is to really inoculate themselves and make themselves as immune as they can be to the virus,” Thompson said.

In Bexar County, 10,926 people in the 12-15 age group have been vaccinated with at least one dose, and 44 are fully vaccinated, according to the Department of State Health Services website.

Like many school districts, North East ISD will launch its summer school program in June at about 30 campuses. Assistant Director of Health Services Emma Kelly said the district is still working on safety guidelines for the summer and fall, which can’t include requirements that students get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“When you look at the big picture, the reason you’d be able to relax your mask guidelines would be because of the increased safety of the environment when more people are vaccinated,” she said. “Even though we’ve seen a recent change in regard to mask mandates related to the governor’s executive order, it still applies that the more people that are vaccinated, the safer the environment in general.”

Kelly said that a vaccine normally would not be required for public school students until it has been approved by the FDA, and the COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for emergency use only.

Northside ISD is planning to offer vaccine opportunities at schools by partnering with community providers, said Director of Health Services Jennifer Krueger. Like SAISD, the district also plans to have school nurses prepared to administer vaccines. Many parents have already called the school nurses to get information on how they can get their children vaccinated.

That’s how Christine Aceves knew she could take her 14-year-old son Arrian to Wonderland mall to get his first Pfizer shot. Aceves said she wanted him to get vaccinated so he could participate in school and summer activities and “for him to start feeling safe.” Arrian said he felt confident about getting the vaccine because it will allow him to feel safer when hanging out with friends. Also, he won’t have to wear a mask as often.

Another benefit of more students getting vaccinated is that they will not have to quarantine if exposed to COVID-19 unless they have symptoms, Krueger said. That means students can spend more time in the classroom, where most tend to thrive academically and socially, and schools want students in class as much as possible this summer.

SAISD has partnered with Baptist Health Systems to make vaccine appointments available to families at a location convenient to them, Thompson said. The district also plans to join forces with Walmart to provide vaccines in stores and on campuses, and bus transportation to all vaccine sites will be available to students who request it. Seniors are being prioritized so they can participate in end-of-year activities like graduation. About 2,000 students have gotten at least one dose out of 20,000 eligible students.

“There’s not going to be a shortage of opportunities,” Thompson said.

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.