Editorial: L.A. Unified shouldn’t be the loser in a game of vaccine-mandate chicken

A protest outside Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters.
People opposed to a vaccine mandate demonstrate outside Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters in September.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

In the game of chicken with vaccine-hesitant parents, L.A. schools are the losers. The Los Angeles Unified School District gave parents of kids 12 and older an ultimatum to get their kids fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the start of the second semester in January; more than 30,000 students said, “And who’s gonna make me?”

All bets are on the school board backing down Tuesday and putting off the vaccine mandate to the fall of 2022, the beginning of the next school year, seven months after the original deadline.

There are legitimate reasons to delay the mandate: Remote learning is, we now know, far inferior to face-to-face instruction, academically, socially and emotionally. We don’t want to isolate tens of thousands of kids again unless it’s absolutely necessary for public health and safety. Plus, switching this many students to independent study would involve major upheaval in the schools as some classes shrink and online classes swell. And the district’s online instructional program has already been beset with problems.


But retreating to the next school year would be a mistake, and a violation of public trust. Hundreds of L.A. Unified staff lost their jobs by refusing to get vaccinated. It’s likely that thousands of families vaccinated their kids because of the mandate; that’s a great thing for those kids and their communities, but the switch leaves those parents feeling like chumps.

Teachers and other school staff have to be vaccinated. The situation is a little cloudier for students, but it’s not too early to mandate vaccinations as the FDA approvals roll in.

Sept. 2, 2021

Beyond that, it’s going to be difficult to make any future mandate on any topic stick if the district backs down because a relatively small percentage of parents revolt.

The simple truth: Vaccination is needed. We’re heading into the dark days of winter and the Omicron variant appears to make the transmission rates of Delta look like a joke. There are students and teachers who have vulnerable family members at home; no one has the right to treat others’ health in a cavalier manner when it comes to a potentially deadly disease.

The school board faces a conundrum for sure. But it can do this much: It can postpone the mandate until the vaccines for 12- to 15-year-olds receive final authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, instead of just emergency use authorization, and use that time to build more remote-learning capacity, starting now. Once the FDA has given the nod, L.A. Unified shouldn’t wait until the next school year, but rather give a decent grace period for students to get the shots and then shut the door on recalcitrant families.

Vaccine-hesitant parents may have won a reprieve this time. But L.A. Unified should be better prepared in the coming months to enforce a vaccine mandate to keep students, staff and their families safe.