How The Science Of Vaccination Is Taught (Or Not) In U.S. Schools

Rebecca Klein

Illustration: Andrea D’Aquino for HuffPost

This story about climate change and education was produced as part of the nine-part series “Are We Ready? How Schools Are Preparing — and Not Preparing — Children for Climate Change,” reported by HuffPost and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

When Rebecca Brewer started teaching high school biology 20 years ago, it seemed like everyone trusted science. Teaching topics like the science of vaccinations elicited little controversy. But in the past few years, she’s seen a shift. Now, every year, she reliably has a few students who push back against the topic. 

“Their parents’ opinions make their way into the classroom,” said Brewer, who teaches in Troy, Michigan. “Of course, some students will bring up the idea they’ve heard that there’s a connection between vaccinations and autism.”

The issue, teachers said, feels not only especially urgent now but also comes with increasingly high stakes: In a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, nearly 20%t of respondents said they wouldn’t get a coronavirus vaccine if and when it becomes available. It’s an attitude that some teachers said is reflected in their classrooms, passed down to students from their parents at early ages.

“A lot of time they haven’t thought in-depth, they’re teenagers, it’s more so their parents’ decisions … there’s still time we can intervene as science teachers and let them see the evidence and come to their own conclusion,” Brewer said.

Science teachers often receive little guidance on teaching the science of vaccines — the topic is not mentioned in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the national science teaching standards that have been adopted in 20 states and influenced the standards in 24 others. At the same time, in recent years confidence in the science of vaccinations has been trending downward — one recent survey...

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