Mr. Assaf and Pace staff volunteers help check in students before their vaccinations on March 30. Photo: @paceacademy on Instagram

On Tuesday, March 23, Head of School Fred Assaf sent out a survey to gauge student interest in getting the COVID-19 vaccine, to be administered by Pace. By the end of the week, students aged 16 and up were signing up to receive their vaccines one year after the onset of the pandemic. Students obtained their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on March 30 and are set to receive their second dose on April 23. 

According to The New York Times, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have proven very effective after two doses, with the Pfizer vaccine being the only vaccine allowed for people aged 16 and 17. Following the vaccination of essential workers and adults aged 65+, Governor Brian Kemp expanded vaccine eligibility to the general public in Georgia starting on Thursday, March 25. While even vaccinated students at Pace must continue following CDC guidelines regarding the pandemic for now, many are feeling hopeful for the events at the end of the year and the upcoming school year. 

“Our goal is to finish out the school year healthy and to return in August fully in person, and hopefully in a position where masks and social distancing won’t be required,” said Mr. Assaf. “Of course, we’re prepared to keep in place any of the protocols we’ve abided by this year and will follow the guidance of our medical advisers, but I’m also really ready to be part of a packed crowd cheering on the Knights and to hug my family and friends.”

Students were excited as well. Senior Grace Demba said that she wanted to get the vaccine to do her part to keep her family and community safe. “I was very excited to get it since this past year has been so unusual,” she said. “I’d love for things to go back to normal and the vaccine is the first step.” 

Junior Rebecca Kann shared similar sentiments and expressed confidence in the Pfizer vaccine. “I feel confident in the technology specifically with mRNA vaccines,” she said. “It’s important for everyone to get a vaccine to reach herd immunity, and therefore I think it is important for everyone to get it who is eligible.”

When asked how Pace obtained vaccines for students so quickly, Mr. Assaf said that he has the “amazing” parents and group of medical professionals to thank, who helped Pace “create, refine and adapt our protocols and procedures as the pandemic played out.”

“Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the health and safety of the entire Pace community have been our priority when making any decision,” said Mr. Assaf. “Our COVID-19 Response Team has been an incredible resource – we wouldn’t be where we are today without them. So, when we heard that vaccines would be available first to educators and then to anyone 16 and over, we worked closely with our partners at MetroAtlanta Ambulance Service to provide vaccines for faculty and staff, and then for eligible students and their parents.” 

According to Mr. Assaf, around 42% of eligible students signed up to receive a vaccine, with 37 families signing up together. Overall, roughly 250 students and parents were given the first dose. Some teachers also used this as an opportunity to receive their second doses. The junior class had the highest participation, closely followed by the sophomore class. Many seniors had already gotten their first dose of the vaccine before March 30.

The statistics reveal that many students remain hesitant about the vaccine. Sophomore Bella Quintana chose not to get vaccinated through Pace due to apprehension about a potential negative reaction to the vaccine. “The rest of my family has the vaccine, but they don’t want me to get it quite yet because they don’t know how it could affect younger people,” she said. “Everyone reacts differently and for safety reasons they just want more research before I get it.”

Senior Robert Houser is choosing to wait on his vaccine for athletic reasons. “Both my parents are vaccinated and left the decision up to me,” he said. “The reason why I am not getting vaccinated immediately is because I don’t want to lose any stamina or risk missing any training for track.” He added that he has had conversations with other athletes who said that it took a toll on their ability to train. “I am waiting until after the season to get vaccinated,” said Houser. 

Mr. Assaf noted that the Pace community and administration have learned several important lessons this year: “One: It is possible to conduct school safely in person in the midst of a pandemic. Two: Students need to be in school, and their parents need them to be in school. It’s in everyone’s best interest. Three: Hybrid learning is hard, particularly on our teachers. In my mind, they are heroes. We’ve asked them to do so much this year, and they’ve truly gone above and beyond.” 

“We believe in science,” said Mr. Assaf. “Plus, it’s just the right thing to do.” 

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