'What's best for the boys': McCallie School explains vaccine requirement amid social media criticism

Staff photo by John Rawlston | Students walk on campus at the McCallie School on Thursday, Apr. 7, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Several private schools in the Chattanooga area have decided not to require COVID-19 vaccinations for students returning in the fall, making McCallie School's decision last week to do so something of a stand-out.

Head of School Lee Burns said the decision was made for the students' best interests.

"That's our North Star, what's best for the boys," Burns told the Times Free Press, "not pressure or shouting or just the range of chatter and opinions on social media and elsewhere, but it's what do we think is best for the boys of McCallie and let's look at what the overwhelming majority of experts are saying, let's look at what the evidence is saying, and let's bring that to bear for the health and safety of our boys at McCallie."

Several Chattanooga-area schools and colleges have hosted or facilitated COVID-19 vaccination events throughout the spring, but most have not required the vaccine. A bill that would prevent state and local government entities from mandating COVID-19 vaccines awaits signature from Gov. Bill Lee. Although public schools and colleges would not be able to require the vaccine under the legislation, private schools would still have the choice.

As of Friday, other Chattanooga-area private schools informed families they will not require the COVID-19 vaccine for students and/or staff, including Baylor School, Girls Preparatory School and Silverdale Baptist Academy.

Baylor School will not be requiring vaccines for students next year and has not made a final decision about requiring them for faculty, according to a statement from spokesperson Barbara Kennedy. Silverdale Baptist Academy will not require vaccines for students, faculty or staff, and a spokesperson for Girls Preparatory School said the school continues to encourage vaccinations through vaccine clinics on its campus.

An Instagram account called Medical Freedom for McCallie has begun posting anonymous messages and conversations from McCallie students and parents. Several posts express disagreement with the school's decision.

"@medical_freedom_for_mccallie does not take a pro or anti vaccine position," a recent post reads. "Our position is solely rooted in the rights and responsibilities of parents to make all medical decisions for their children. These health decisions are highly personal and private matters, and should be made without pressure from governments, businesses, and institutions."

Burns said the school's decision hinged on what's best for students and was based on the opinions of medical experts and similar decisions made by peer boarding schools and independent schools across the U.S.

"We recognize and respect that people have a range of opinions about vaccinations, including the COVID vaccine. We did a parent survey earlier this spring, and it showed us that overwhelmingly our parents were in favor of vaccination for COVID. We are going to have some exemptions for religious or medical reasons or moral or ethical reasons. But at the end of the day, we make decisions not based on noise or chatter out there, but what we think is best for the boys of the McCallie School," Burns said.

The evidence McCallie cited in communicating its decision included guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Tennessee and Hamilton County health departments. Dr. David Bruce, medical director of One to One Health and member of McCallie's COVID task force, hosted a webinar with McCallie parents and said one of the main questions was concern that the COVID-19 vaccine was experimental.

"I think people get this misconstrued that [the vaccine] hasn't gone through a rigorous testing, and it has. For anything to be brought to market to be used this way, even though it was the middle of a pandemic, it had certain criteria that it had to meet and exceeded all of those thresholds, both Moderna and Pfizer certainly did," Bruce told the Times Free Press last week. "We had some problems with the [Johnson and Johnson] vaccine that everyone's aware of, and it has some markers that are of concern, there's no doubt, but the CDC has deemed and the FDA has deemed that is still a very valid vaccine and should be used as part of our treatment and prevention of COVID."

Part of the reason the school announced the requirement before the end of the semester was to give families notice before summer, Burns said.

"We wanted to let our school community know just as soon after we made the decision as possible. So basically we're giving three months notice before the school year gets started, and I think that it's helpful for our school community to know that and it's easier and better and more effective to communicate that while the school committee is still gathered in session, as opposed to the summer," Burns said. "When summer gets here, people are scattered and it's harder to have everyone together to talk about it, and we want to be timely and transparent and honest in our communication with our families and with the school community."

In an email to parents sent out Friday, a McCallie official said students could exempt an exam, paper or project as a result of the school meeting its goal of 500 students receiving the COVID-19 vaccination. These kinds of incentives are not unusual at the school, spokesperson Bill Steverson told the Times Free Press Sunday, and as of Friday afternoon they had already exceeded the 500-student goal.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.