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As deadlines approach, thousands of L.A. school employees, students remain unvaccinated

A teacher's assistant receives a vaccine inside her school gymnasium.
A teacher’s assistant at San Fernando Middle School receives her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a clinic inside the school gymnasium. Deadlines are approaching in the Los Angeles school district for employees and students to receive required COVID-19 vaccines.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

High-stakes COVID-19 vaccine mandate deadlines are fast approaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District and employees who refuse the inoculations face losing their jobs while unvaccinated students would ultimately be forced off campus into an online program.

While the vast majority of students and teachers are expected to comply — and possibly even feel reassured by the mandate — large numbers in the nation’s second-largest school district have so far resisted the requirement. Currently, about 1 in 5 district employees, about 12,000 workers, have not begun their immunization, according to information provided at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting. A loss of that magnitude would add more disruption to school operations, especially as the district is struggling to fill more than 2,000 vacancies.

All school-district employees must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15, unless they have an approved religious or medical exemption. A deadline also looms for students: By Oct. 3, students 12 and older must receive their first of a two-dose regimen if they wish to take part in any school-affiliated extracurricular activity, including all sports as well as clubs, dance teams, band, drama or anything else outside of academic work.

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All students 12 and older must be fully vaccinated by the start of the second semester. Only medical exemptions are allowed for students.

A district spokesman said Tuesday that the percentage of workers vaccinated is expected to rise substantially. The current rate of 80% does not include people with vaccine appointments or those who have simply not yet uploaded documentation.

Parents were frustrated after receiving little help enrolling into LAUSD’s independent study program. The school district is not alone.

The district has not released figures on how many employees or students are requesting or receiving exemptions.

One teacher, who requested anonymity, described the process she experienced.

“LAUSD sent us a form to fill out as to whether we wanted a medical or religious exemption,” said the teacher. “We were asked to attach a statement with it. I have a statement from a pastor that I attached.” She heard back last Friday, after five weeks. “I was told I would hear from human resources soon with my options to take a leave of absence, where I can use my personal days and then go unpaid — or go to the City of Angels.”

City of Angels is the district’s option for families who want remote learning rather than in-person classes this year. The program has been beset by problems, largely because it was unprepared to handle 15,000 students, especially when many signed up just before the start of school on Aug. 16.

Transferring teachers to City of Angels would help solve two problems. It removes an unvaccinated teacher from district property — complying with district policy — while also addressing a staffing shortage. City of Angels teachers can work from home. But such a transfer leaves a hole at the school a teacher is leaving behind.

It’s unclear whether the City of Angels workaround is nearly enough to accommodate teachers who can’t or won’t be vaccinated. City of Angels is also no solution for nonteaching unvaccinated staff.

L.A. Unified long has been on the leading edge of strict COVID-safety measures — including the weekly coronavirus testing of all students and employees. This focus has been hailed as a national model for providing a safe environment and building confidence among parents and employees returning to full-time, in-person education for the first time since March 2020. The district was the first large school system in the country to order a vaccine mandate.

The shortfall of close to 6% in the nation’s second-largest school district is three times what district officials had predicted.

Critics, however, have said the district policies are overly cautious, hindering students’ social interaction and physical activity, while enforcing quarantine rules that have resulted in frequent and unnecessary academic disruptions.

District officials credit their actions for a declining rate of coronavirus infections turning up through testing, a trend also mirrored in the county at large. Nonetheless, lawsuits have targeted the coronavirus testing as well as masking rules that exceed state and county guidelines.

Several employees opposed to getting vaccines told The Times that litigation is being prepared on their behalf. The district already has been threatened with litigation on behalf of students by the group Children’s Health Defense.

Although the mandate does not take effect for more than two weeks, it is the 11th hour for staff immunizations. The district is offering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as an option for employees because other approved vaccines would not achieve their full effect in time.

One teacher, who also declined to be named, is making a significant sacrifice to avoid vaccination. The district denied her request for a religious exemption, so she is retiring. If she had been able to work three months longer, she would have qualified — based on decades of service — for lifetime health benefits.

“Upsetting and sad,” she said.

Jamal Y. Speakes, Sr. loves his school and loves teaching film production at the Valley Oaks Center for Enriched Studies in Sun Valley. He’s waiting to hear about his request for a religious exemption and worried that, one way or another, he’ll have to leave the campus.

“I am not opposed to vaccinations,” Speakes said. “I am opposed to the mandate and how LAUSD is enforcing this as the only option,” said Speakes. “The thought of not being able to return to the classroom because of this mandate is disheartening.”

Speakes added: “I am also upset with my teachers union, which has completely left these teachers hanging because it doesn’t fit their narrative.”

The Board of Directors for the teachers union supports the vaccination mandate. At last week’s union meeting, officials diverted a proposed resolution calling the vaccinations into question by referring the resolution to committee — a move sometimes used to bury a motion or delay taking action, insiders said.

One teacher said she got the vaccine “because I had to” to keep her job, but won’t permit her sixth-grader in a West San Fernando Valley school to get the shot.

Students involved in extracurricular activities face serious restrictions if they don’t have have their first dose by Monday and will only be allowed to attend class. All eligible students must receive a second dose no later than Dec. 19.

Mayra Figueredo is thinking of her pulling her two children from L.A. Unified if the mandate is enforced. She said she belongs to a social media group of 1,400 who are considering their options.

The vaccine “is way too new and no one is aware of the long-term side effects,” Figueredo said. “I’d rather have my son get COVID, to be frank.”

About three weeks ago, the district estimated that about 80,000 eligible students were not yet vaccinated.

Still for most parents — seemingly a large majority — vaccines are a faster and prudent path out of the pandemic — as well as one recommended by most health experts.

“I’m waiting to send my kids back to in-person school until they are vaccinated — and a vaccination mandate for their age group is in place — they are both under 12,” said Carmel Levitan, who said she can hardly wait for her children to return from the City of Angels program back to Eagle Rock Elementary School.


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