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Editorial: California’s teachers will have to get vaccinated. It’s about time

A boy wears face mask and carries a hand sanitizer bottle at Madison Elementary School  in South Gate.
Leighton Sonco, right, wears face mask and carries a hand sanitizer bottle on the reopening day of Madison Elementary School on April 15 in South Gate.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Early this year, teachers unions throughout California were saying that their members couldn’t go back to work in physical classrooms without being vaccinated against COVID-19. They were given priority on vaccination and most school districts delayed reopening campuses until their members could go through the two-dose vaccination and waiting period afterward.

Now unions are saying that teachers shouldn’t have to be vaccinated to return to school, just as the more contagious Delta variant is raising infection rates and a new school year is beginning.

We can’t run schools safely on a basis of doing whatever individual teachers want. If, as unions claimed early on, vaccination is necessary to keep teachers and students safe, that doesn’t somehow change when a minority of teachers avoid baring their arms for a needle jab.

This apparent contradiction probably could have been overlooked if California had stayed at super-low rates of infection. After all, even before the vaccine was available, federal, state and local health officials were saying that it was safe for teachers and students to return to campus with proper masking and distancing. The state was later than almost all of the nation on that, which was a shame that cost too many students too much learning.

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But now, increasing numbers of California children are being sickened by the highly contagious variant. Even if they show no symptoms, they still can harbor the virus and pass that infection along to their families and community members, including severely immunocompromised individuals who get less protection from the vaccine.

In fact, COVID-19 cases among children are skyrocketing nationwide — not because the variant somehow picks on children but because it is transmitted far more easily. The virus has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated — and children younger than 12, for whom the vaccines are not yet approved, make up a large segment of that group. Schools will be a petri dish of these younger children.

That’s why Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, shifted her longtime stance late last week and said she’s considering supporting mandatory vaccination for teachers. The teachers unions in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., followed quickly with support for vaccine mandates in their schools.

And now, it’s California’s turn. On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced, in time for the start of most schools, that teachers and other school staff must be fully vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. The delay was, in part, because of opposition by the California Teachers Assn., perhaps the most powerful lobby in Sacramento. It urged teachers to be vaccinated — and says that more than 90% have been — but wasn’t willing to support a vaccine mandate. Neither was the leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles, which has softened its stance in more recent days.

We applaud this decision and the unions’ more reasonable stance. Newsom’s original plan had been to leave vaccine mandates up to individual school districts. We had a chance to see how that kind of policy worked last spring when the governor refused to set parameters for schools to reopen, leaving that up to local control — widely disparate reopenings, with many of the poorest students, those suffering the greatest learning losses, returning later than others.

Newsom already has mandated masks indoors for all students and staff at schools, vaccinated or not, another smart move.

Los Angeles Unified is going two steps better, with weekly COVID-19 testing for all students and staff, vaccinated or not, as well as masks indoors and outside. Given the ease with which the variant makes the rounds, this is a wise move that should maximize safety. And parents who object to the tests and masking need to just get over it. Most kids have readily accepted masks as a current need, behaving far more maturely than many an adult.

The return to school this fall will be only as successful as the number of students who return. The variant is making already-traumatized parents nervous. Vaccine, testing and mask mandates should help families feel confident in sending their children back to campus. By getting vaccinated, school employees help protect the students — and one another.


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