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L.A. students must get COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available for them, Beutner says

Teacher Maria Smith tutors at Eshelman Elementary in Lomita in fall 2020.
Fifth-grade teacher Maria Smith tutors a student at Eshelman Elementary in Lomita in the fall semester of 2020. L.A.'s schools chief wants to require all on-campus students to be vaccinated once a vaccine is available for them.
(L.A. Unified)

Once COVID-19 vaccines are available to children, Los Angeles students will have to be immunized before they can return to campus, Supt. Austin Beutner said Monday.

Beutner however, did not suggest that campuses remain closed until then. Instead, he said, the state should set standards for reopening all schools, clearly justify the directives, and then require campuses to open when the standards are achieved.

A COVID-19 vaccine requirement would be “no different than students who are vaccinated for measles or mumps,” Beutner said in a pre-recorded briefing. He also compared students, staff and others getting a COVID-19 vaccine to those who “are tested for tuberculosis before they come on campus. That’s the best way we know to keep all on a campus safe.”

But a vaccine will not be in the arms of students for some time. The two vaccines that have received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration so far were tested almost exclusively in adults. The clinical trial of the shot made by Pfizer and BioNTech included 153 16- and 17-year-olds, and some of the experts who reviewed the data for the FDA said there weren’t enough teens to determine whether the vaccine is safe for that age group, let alone for younger children.

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Children and young adults also are likely to be among the last to be vaccinated because they face a lower risk for a severe case of COVID-19.

Beutner said he hoped all students would be vaccinated “by this time next year.”

Parents who don’t want their children to take the vaccine “will always have the option for a child to stay in online learning and therefore not have to go back to campus,” Beutner said.

Also in a Monday public briefing, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said vaccines could be available as soon as early February for teachers and other essential workers who are slated to be part of the next phase of immunization.

But that’s still a month or more away, and the pandemic continues to rage through the county. Separately, in light of the devastating conditions, Ferrer formally urged all K-12 school officials to close their campuses for the remainder of January.

“The diminishing capacity of our healthcare system to care for the most severely ill among us is at a critical juncture and we all must do what we can,” Ferrer wrote. “This recommendation for schools is intended to support this strategy.”

A relatively small number of campuses — mostly private schools — have been open under waivers to offer classes to students in transitional kindergarten through second grade. Schools also have been able to offer in-person services and instruction to students with special needs in one-on-one settings and small groups — with up to 25% of enrollment on campus at a given time.

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Three public schools systems — Las Virgenes Unified, El Segundo Unified and Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified — told The Times Monday they would suspend use of their waivers and return to online instruction in accordance with Ferrer’s request.

Echoing Ferrer’s plea, the California Federation of Teachers on Monday called for a four-week halt to all in-person schooling. A spokeswoman for the state’s other and larger teachers union, the California Teachers Assn, said it would be taking essentially the same position.

L.A. Unified last week released alarming data from its internal testing program: Nearly 1 in 3 asymptomatic students from some lower-income communities who sought a coronavirus test at a district-operated site during the week of Dec. 14 turned out to be infected. At the time of the test, the children reported feeling no effects of COVID-19. Asymptomatic carriers can still spread the virus to others and might later develop symptoms.

Health officials will begin distributing COVID-19 vaccines this week at Disneyland, the Orange County Board of Supervisors said Monday, making the resort the first “super” vaccination site in the county.

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Though a vaccine would protect teachers, infected children could pass the virus among themselves even if they show no signs of illness. They could then take the virus home to vulnerable family members. It’s also possible that vaccinated teachers — who would be protected — might still be able to carry the virus to their households.

Officials are hopeful that virus transmission on campus would be limited by strong safety measures, including physical distancing, improved air filtration and wearing face coverings.

In their push to reopen closed campuses, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and state Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond have recently cited research suggesting that strong campus safety protocols can be effective in limiting the spread of the virus.

In the short term, however, increasing numbers schools are voluntarily delaying reopening plans or closing down in-person services.


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