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Youth vaccine passes: How do they work around the world?

US, Canada, European countries limit unvaccinated minors’ access to public places, but rarely to education -- public or private

Members of a Seoul-based parents group stage a rally in southern Seoul protesting the government‘s plan to expand the COVID-19 vaccine pass program to teenagers on Dec. 11, 2021. (Yonhap)
Members of a Seoul-based parents group stage a rally in southern Seoul protesting the government‘s plan to expand the COVID-19 vaccine pass program to teenagers on Dec. 11, 2021. (Yonhap)
The South Korean government’s vaccine mandate on youths attending cram schools is facing strong backlash from parents and private academies. 

The vaccine pass system for people aged 12-18 using cram schools, reading rooms, study cafes and other private educational facilities faces a delay, after a local court issued an injunction on the controversial measure. Its introduction had already been postponed by one month to March. 

The government plans to appeal, but it is likely that the private educational institutions, commonly referred to as hagwon here, will remain excluded for the time being, as any decision to annul the court-issued suspension is unlikely to arrive soon. 

At its core, the debate comes down to whether the rule unduly infringes upon unvaccinated individuals’ general right to education, as stated by the issuer of the injunction, or if it is a necessary measure to protect children given the rising virus cases among minors, as claimed by the government. 

Soaring infections among teens is not a problem confined to Korea. The US and many European countries have been grappling with it for weeks now. 

Then, how are these countries doing, with regard to the youth vaccine pass? 

According to data compiled by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, many high-income and high-vaccinated countries, including the US, Germany, France and Italy, are enforcing a youth vaccine pass system, although the scope and extent of restrictions vary.  

The US, which approved COVID-19 vaccinations for children aged 5 and older in November last year, has different rules across states.   

In San Francisco, for instance, children aged 12 and older are required to show a digital copy of their vaccination record or negative test results to enter multiuse facilities, such as restaurants, sports arenas and movie theaters. Meanwhile, New York City imposes tougher requirements on younger ones aged 5 and older.

As for neighboring Canada, the city governments of Calgary and Edmonton in Alberta ask teenagers between the age of 12 and 18 to present digitized proof of full vaccination to access public places. 

Some European nations have also expanded their vaccine pass regime to include minors. 

Since November, children aged 6 and above in Germany must present proof of vaccination before accessing multiuse spaces, including public transportations, known as the “3G rule.” That refers to three German words -- geimpft, genesen and getestet – which mean “vaccinated,” “recovered” and “tested” in English, respectively. 

The lower age limit of vaccine pass programs in France and Italy is 12. The French government expanded its “Health Pass” rule to those aged 12-17 in September last year. Without a digitized vaccine passport, teens cannot enter multiuse facilities or travel long distances by train or bus.

Restaurants, cafes, cinemas and other public places in Italy have also required children to show proof of vaccination or a negative test for entry since late last year.

Israel, the first country in the world that began delivering fourth doses of COVID-19 vaccine to medical workers and citizens aged 60 and over, runs a vaccine passport system that works for children starting at 12 years old.

None of the countries mentioned, however, limit unvaccinated minors’ access to education, be it public or private. 

“There are private cram schools in Germany teaching German to Korean immigrants and their children. Also, some German kids go to education facilities run by Koreans to learn Korean language and culture. The country has expanded its vaccine pass system to minors, but these places have been exempt from the tightened rules,” said Kim Dan-bi, a 30-year-old Korean living in Frankfurt, Germany. 

There were some attempts, however, to introduce a vaccine mandate for students at public schools. But most failed amid strong backlash from the public. 

In the US, Los Angeles, for example, delayed its initial plan to block unvaccinated students aged 12 and up from entering public schools starting this month to fall this year. Queensland, northeastern Australia, has implemented a vaccine mandate for middle and high schools across the country since December, but only teachers and school staff -- not students -- fall under the requirement. 

Meanwhile, there are countries that exclude children from their vaccine pass regimes. 

The UK, which administered COVID-19 vaccines for children aged 12 and above last year, has placed its vaccine pass rule only on people aged 18 and above. Austria has applied its rule to college students since late last year, not allowing them to enter schools without vaccination records, but the government made an exception for teenagers aged 12-18. 

To be sure, none of the countries mentioned have such a massive private education industry as seen in Korea. 

The Korean debate on youth vaccine passes is closely linked to the unique role the hagwon takes in the life of Korean students, experts point out. 

“Hagwon is like a second school here. The number of children receiving private education has been on a steady rise, largely due to the nation’s education system centered on college entrance exams. The health authorities should not be blind to this reality,” said Eun Byung-wok, a professor at Nowon Eulji Medical Center, advising caution in expanding the vaccine mandate to hagwon.

By Choi Jae-hee (
Korea Herald Youtube