With the approval of a COVID-19 vaccine for adolescents this week, MaineHealth’s Pen Bay Medical Center and Waldo County General Hospital have begun to plan for vaccination clinics in area schools.

School-based vaccination clinics have been a staple of our public school system for almost 150 years, reflecting a long history of public schools leading the effort to improve the health of our communities. In 1875, New York City created school-based vaccination clinics to inoculate students against smallpox. Locally, many residents will remember lining up in school gymnasiums and cafeterias in the 1950s to receive the Salk polio vaccine. More recently, local public schools responded to H1N1 pandemic in 2009 by again setting up school-based vaccination clinics. Today, local schools, including Camden Hills Regional High School, continue to host seasonal flu clinics. There is little doubt that our communities are healthier because of the role public schools have played in numerous vaccination efforts.

It is important to note, especially because we are in the middle of the annual Nurses Week celebration, that these efforts were often led by school nurses. Grounded in ethical and evidence-based practice, school nurses bridge health care and education by advocating for the kind of student-centered care that allows them and their communities to develop to their full potential. They administer routine medications, take temperatures when students feel ill and stabilize those with more serious injuries. These highly trained professionals are well positioned to collaborate with local health care providers on any number of matters, including vaccination clinics. Such was the case at Troy A. Howard Middle School in Belfast during the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009. Collaborating with Waldo County General Hospital, the school nurse organized weekend clinics at the school that vaccinated hundreds of students. On vaccination day, she greeted students and sometimes parents and moved them through the line. Hers was a familiar and trusted face, and she helped put the young and nervous patients at ease.

Now, with COVID-19, we again look to our public schools. With much of the population aged 60 and over now vaccinated, the demand for access at mass vaccination clinics has started to wane. As a result, we are turning our focus to young adults by offering walk-in clinics to better mesh with their busy schedules. We are also focusing on students by collaborating with school nurses and administrations. The pediatricians from PBMC fully support this focus and will play an important role in these discussions.

We are discussing with several local schools how we might collaborate on COVID-19 vaccination clinics with the goal of getting into the schools quickly so that we can schedule second doses for students before the end of the school year. Currently, the Pfizer vaccine is approved for those 12 years of age and up. This effort, as with everything we do, will follow all guidelines of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control as well as a thoughtful plan issued by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services on how to best run school-based vaccine clinics. We will be releasing details as they are available.

This effort makes sense for many reasons. Public school vaccination clinics are credited with all but eliminating polio and smallpox from the U.S., and there’s every reason to think that they will be as successful when it comes to COVID-19. Public schools also represent one of our best opportunities to achieve health equity when it comes to vaccinations. A bastion of democracy, they bring together the great cross section of our communities under one roof. This provides a significant opportunity to reach students from rural, poor and underserved areas. This is not to say that public schools should carry the burden of being thought of as a panacea. But the long history of success with vaccination clinics confirms that our schools are uniquely positioned to contribute to the fight against COVID-19.

There is no single best way to fight a pandemic; as the contagion evolves, so must we. At this point, it is time to turn our attention to vaccinating our school-age children. PBMC, WCGH have collaborated with our public schools on such efforts before and we look forward to working together again.

Dr. Mark Fourre is president of Pen Bay Medical Center and Waldo County General Hospital.