Robert Beard, 13, shows off his arm, where he received the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a Horizon Middle School clinic. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Instead of meeting his mom in the car pick-up line when Horizon Middle School let out Tuesday afternoon, Robert Beard waited for her in the cafeteria. The eighth-grader was there to get his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

He sat down behind a folding screen and emerged seconds later, then joined his mom at one of the lunch tables where he waited a few minutes to make sure he had no adverse reaction.

The prospect of getting four, free El Paso Locomotive FC tickets from the vaccine clinic organizers was Beard’s main motivation for getting the shot. A free water bottle was another plus.

“Also, if you do get the vaccine, you do get a free day of no school (to rest from side effects),” Beard, 13, said. “So go ahead, man. Take your freedom.”

With the new school year underway, El Paso County school districts are working to boost vaccination numbers among adolescents, who have the lowest vaccination rates nationwide. The Pfizer vaccine was approved for emergency use in 12 to 15 year olds in early May.

Though the rate for El Paso adolescents is almost double the statewide rate of 33% for those aged 12-15, it still trails other age groups. According to El Paso Matters’ analysis, about 62% of the county’s 12-15 year old population is fully vaccinated, followed by 67% of those 16-49, 75% of those 80 and older, 83% of those 50-64 and 86% of those 65-79.

Tuesday’s Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso clinic at Horizon Middle School is one example of districts partnering with health workers to encourage middle and high school students to get vaccinated. The event was organized in collaboration with the Reduce the Risk campaign.

A sign for free COVID-19 vaccines at Del Valle High School on Aug. 14. Schools around El Paso are hosting clinics after hours and on weekends to promote vaccinations for students. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

El Paso, like many large Texas cities, has pivoted away from vaccination hubs after they stopped drawing large crowds after demand dropped. Health officials now favor a broader outreach approach where families can choose from different locations where they feel most comfortable getting their children vaccinated.

“Instead of hubs, it’s a strategy of working with local clinics, pediatricians’ offices and schools to get those children vaccinated,” said Kristina Mena, dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health in El Paso.

This strategy will continue as younger ages become eligible for the vaccine, Mena said.

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to grant vaccine emergency use authorization for 5 to 11 years olds by late fall.

Silvia Parada, who accompanied her 13-year old son Santiago Parada for his first dose Tuesday, said distance and comfort with the school setting were large factors in her decision to get him vaccinated there. Horizon Middle School is about 22 miles away from the remaining hub at the Downtown El Paso convention center. TTUHSC El Paso medical students will return to the middle school next month to administer second doses.

Santiago, 13, and mother Silvia Parada celebrate his first COVID-19 vaccine shot at the Horizon Middle School clinic. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

The increased risk of exposure to the virus is also drawing students to the pop-up clinics.

At a clinic the University Medical Center of El Paso hosted at the campus on Aug. 9, the second week of school, Canutillo High School freshman Natalia Gonzalez said she felt unsafe returning to in-person classes without the vaccine.

“It’s been kind of tough because of the outbreak at the school,” Gonzalez said. “It’s kind of hard to focus on school, cause you’re thinking ‘what if this kid has a case of COVID-19 and hasn’t told anyone.’”

Laboratory-confirmed positive cases within Canutillo Independent School District doubled between the first two weeks of school, according to district data. As of Aug. 22, there were 29 cases among its 6,200 students and seven employee cases. Twenty-six of the total 36 people who tested positive were unvaccinated, the district notes.

Though El Paso has some of the state’s highest overall vaccination rates — with 72% of the 12 and older population fully vaccinated — hesitancy remains, even in vaccinated parents.

A frequent concern health workers hear from parents is that of potential long-term side effects of the vaccine, said Stephanie Woods, dean of the TTUHSC El Paso nursing school.

“It’s different when you’re making that decision for yourself, versus another person,” Woods said.

Patti Stanwick, Beard’s mother, didn’t hesitate to get her own vaccine in early April.

“I have close friends that have come down with COVID. It hits very close to home,” Stanwick said. “I want to protect myself, I want to protect my family, and I want to protect my friends and my community. I don’t want any more people to get sick.”

It was her son who ended up needing a bit of convincing, Stanwick said, saying they had an in-depth conversation about the pros and cons before his first shot.

A Pfizer vaccine available at Horizon Middle School for students, parents and the public. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Beard was mostly worried the shot would hurt or that he would feel sick after getting it. A fever is a normal side effect, Woods said, and means the vaccine is working. The most uncomfortable side effect Beard experienced was a sore arm, which only lasted about a day.

Adolescents whose parents don’t push them to get vaccinated won’t overcome their own hesitancy until they see their friends and classmates get vaccinated, Woods said.

She sees the FDA’s Aug. 23 full approval of the Pfizer vaccine in people aged 16 and older as a game-changer toward increasing the country’s vaccination rate. Schools could soon start requiring the COVID-19 vaccine, as they do for other vaccines, like Hepatitis A and B and measles, mumps and rubella. The FDA is seeking full approval for use in 12 to 15 year olds.

“When parents may have to make a decision that your kids can’t come to school unless they’re fully vaccinated, can’t be on sports teams or things of that nature, so eventually it gets to a place where there’s less of a way to say no and get by with it because it may limit your rights,” Woods said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Wednesday that bans state and local government entities, like schools, from requiring the fully approved COVID-19 vaccine. The San Antonio Independent School District, however, is requiring its staff to be fully vaccinated by mid-October, which the state attorney general is challenging in court.

Cover photo: Robert Beard, 13, shows off his arm, where he received the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a Horizon Middle School clinic. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Molly Smith reports on K-12 education for El Paso Matters; Danielle Prokop reports on the environment and climate change for El Paso Matters.