L.A. school officials order sweeping student vaccine mandate, a first by a major district
All children 12 and older in Los Angeles public schools must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by January to enter campus under an order approved Thursday by the Board of Education, the first such mandate among the nation’s largest school systems and a decision that triggered immediate pushback.
The requirement cements the standing of the L.A. Unified School District as an early adopter of COVID-19 school safety measures that are wide-reaching and aggressive. The nation’s second-largest school system has moved faster and more comprehensively than most others in testing all students and employees for coronavirus infection every week, requiring masks indoors and outdoors and ordering employees to get vaccinated.
L.A. schools Interim Supt. Megan K. Reilly said the student mandate was the next logical step to keep children, staff and community members safer from a COVID-19 pandemic that still poses significant risks.
“We’ve always approached safety with a multilayered approach: masks, air filtration and coronavirus screening,” Reilly told The Times. “But we are seeing without a doubt that the vaccines are one of the clearest pathways to protecting individuals from getting severe sickness as well as for mitigating transmission of the COVID virus. It is one of the best preventive measures that we have at our disposal to create a safe environment at schools.”
New York City’s school system, the largest in the nation, so far has ordered athletes in high-contact sports to begin the vaccination process before competition starts. New York City and Chicago, the nation’s third-largest district, are among a growing number of school systems that have enacted mandates for employees.
The L.A. district action “could provide the model for a comprehensive school response to COVID mitigation, so that schools can move on to student academic and mental health recovery plans,” said Odis Johnson Jr., executive director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “Mandatory vaccination mandates move us forward toward finally addressing students’ developmental, social and academic well-being.”
One vaccine, made by Pfizer, has received full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for people 16 and older. Those who are 12 to 15 can be inoculated under a federal emergency use authorization. L.A. Unified is not waiting for full vaccine approval for those 12 to 15 — although that approval by the FDA is widely expected in the coming weeks. And President Biden on Thursday pledged to expedite approval of the vaccine for younger children.
Reilly estimated that about 225,000 students in grades six through 12 would fall under the policy. District officials estimate that roughly 80,000 students are not yet vaccinated. Also affected would be about 17,000 students in independent charter schools that use L.A. Unified campuses.
Students who are not vaccinated by the deadline will not be allowed on campus, she said. The alternative for them would be to enter remote learning through independent study, a program that was overwhelmed at the start of the school year when more than 10,000 students signed up.
Under the district’s mandate, the first students affected would be those involved in any school-sponsored extracurricular activity, including sports, drama, chorus and band. Those students who are 12 or older must receive a first vaccine dose no later than Oct. 3 and a second dose no later than Oct. 31.
All students 12 and older would have to receive a first dose no later than Nov. 21 and a second dose no later than Dec. 19. The final day of classes before winter break is Dec. 17.
Students return to class on Jan. 11. By Jan. 10, proof of vaccination would have to be “uploaded and approved in LAUSD’s Daily Pass program” except for those students with approved exemptions, the proposal says.
As more than 1,000 schools reopen amid rising case counts, the district’s massive coronavirus testing effort is central to keeping schools safe.
The Daily Pass allows a student onto campus and tracks weekly coronavirus test results. Parents and students also use the pass to self-report whether a student has symptoms.
Vaccine exemptions can be requested for documented medical reasons, but not based on religious or personal beliefs, according to L.A. Unified.
The resolution also stipulates that younger students would have to receive their first vaccine dose no later than 30 days after their 12th birthday and their second dose no later than eight weeks after that birthday.
Even though the meeting was called with one-day’s notice, about 100 protesters, including some who are not district parents, had enough time to assemble outside the district’s headquarters, just west of downtown.
Bridgett Bradley, a parent of three, wore a shirt that read “Babies Lives Matter.” Others carried signs reading “Children Are Not Guinea Pigs,” “COVID Testing Is a Scam,” “The Vax Equals Racism” and “Save Our Children.”
Bradley said she would rather home-school her 14-year-old and 9-year-old than have the eldest vaccinated. “Who knows, they might try to put it in babies,” she said of the vaccine.
Before the meeting, officials allowed public comment by phone from only seven speakers, saying the format of the meeting allowed them to limit the number of comments.
“As parents we have a lot of concerns about this vaccine,” said Diana Guillen, a leader with a district parent advisory committee, who addressed the board in Spanish. “This vaccine is experimental... This decision should be made by parents, not by you.”
Another parent asked the board: “Can we sue the district if our child has secondary side effects that are negative?”
The speakers also included state Senator Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat who’s also a pediatrician.
“Children are accounting for more than 26% of reported cases,” Pan said. “In taking this step, which is grounded in science, LAUSD is leading the way in putting the heath of children first. ... The vaccines are safe and effective.”
A major local pediatricians group also endorsed the decision.
In her separate news briefing Thursday, Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer thanked LAUSD officials “for really elevating the importance of using vaccinations as one of the most powerful tools” saying the move will “add another layer of protection” at schools.
Neither the county nor state has taken a position on whether school districts should mandate vaccines.
District officials, experts and attorneys said that litigation was likely.
“I expect that there will be numerous legal challenges to the vaccine mandate for children in LAUSD and other districts,” said Scott Davison, an attorney representing Let Them Breathe, an organization with active litigation against the state over the school mask mandate as well as guidelines for quarantines and coronavirus testing.
Davison asserted that the coronavirus vaccine was more akin in effectiveness to the flu vaccine, which is not typically required at schools. The required polio vaccination, in contrast, has a lengthy track record of successfully preventing a disease that seriously afflicted children.
“We know vaccines are effective at preventing severe disease,” Davison said. “The question for the [COVID] vaccines will be whether they are needed in a population like children who are already at incredibly low risk.”
Johnson of Johns Hopkins said case law “is on the side of LAUSD’s vaccination mandate. Supreme Court rulings have not only upheld vaccination requirements for public school attendance, they have also permitted municipal systems to require proof of vaccination.”
Prior to the vote, the district’s medical director, Dr. Smita Malhotra, presented evidence in support of the policy, concluding that it would likely prevent the hospitalization of more than 100 children.
In citing the importance of acting now, the resolution states that the school system plays a fundamental role in efforts “to safeguard the educational, health and safety needs of Los Angeles Unified’s students and community as a whole within its geographic boundaries.”
School board President Kelly Gonez called vaccines “the strongest tool in our toolbox.”
Officials expect most families to be supportive.
Parent Ariel Harman-Holmes said she was “thrilled” at the news.
Although she acknowledged having many complaints about L.A. Unified, “they’re doing an admirable job of curtailing COVID spread. ... This mandate is a wonderful example for other school districts of how to protect our school communities.”
Times staff writers Luke Money and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.
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