Editorial: Mandatory vaccines and masks. LAUSD shows the right way to reopen schools in 2021

Leighton Sonco, 5, plays with his hand sanitizer bottle
Leighton Sonco, 5, with hand sanitizer bottle hanging, plays on the reopening day of Madison Elementary School on April 15 in South Gate.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County can expect a rise in reported COVID-19 cases over the coming week as the Delta variant continues to spread. Not all of the new infections will be among sick people. Some will be asymptomatic cases discovered by COVID testing of all students and staff by L.A. Unified schools — hundreds of thousands of tests every week.

That’s a good thing, folks. By finding cases that otherwise would have gone undiscovered, the schools will not only prevent outbreaks among students and staff, but also help lower transmission rates in the larger community, as infected people stay home and their families take proper precautions.

When it comes to safety from COVID-19 in schools, L.A. Unified has emerged as a national leader. It was the first district to institute mandatory, universal testing at its schools under a contract with a vendor that provides results by early the following morning, long enough before school starts to take necessary quarantining or other steps. It was among the first to replace its aging ventilation systems with state-of-the-art air filtration.


Even better, it now is mandating vaccination for its staff, except those with medical or religious reasons for not taking the jab. The district should ensure that those are legitimate reasons, such as established religions that forbid vaccination rather than someone who claims a vague moral belief or a member of a newly formed Congregation Against Common-sense Acts.

This isn’t a vaccinate or be tested rule. It’s vaccinate and be tested.

Vaccination is by far the most effective way to prevent both infection and serious disease, and L.A. Unified is showing the way for other school districts to follow. Children younger than 12 cannot be vaccinated at this point, and it is the job of teachers and staff not just to help their minds develop, but also to avoid letting them be sickened at school. (As well as protecting the other adult staffers.) Assuming that one or more of the vaccines receives full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — all of them are now under emergency use authorization, which puts some limits on vaccine mandates — the state should require them for all students 12 and older.

Along with new air-filtration systems and notched-up janitorial services, the school district is helping to convince parents that their families will be safe sending the kids back to school campuses. Less than 3% of L.A. Unified students have opted for remote instruction — that is, if the total student count is close to the 450,000 or so that district officials had hoped to enroll this year.

It was good to see lots of kids back on campus Monday — something that should have been happening by about the middle of the last academic year. But it’s not yet clear how many students are actually returning. Preliminary kindergarten enrollment is now at 34,000, compared with 43,000 in the fall of 2019. The number this year is expected to rise over the next few weeks, but it looks at this point as though the district has lost heavily in its enrollment of the youngest students, whether they have gone to other districts, to charter school or are being home-schooled. That’s a potentially damaging statistic in a district that even before the pandemic was steadily losing student population.

Staff members have been canvassing by phone, going door to door, doing everything to coax families to send the kids back to school. And unless they have found other good schooling options for their children, parents should send the kids back to their L.A. Unified school. The last year and a half has been scary and wearying and the Delta variant has stirred the fear pot again. But in terms of physical safety, they’d be sending their kids to among the most prepared and cautious schools in the nation.