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Facing Thousands of Unvaccinated Students, Los Angeles District Pushes Back Vaccine Mandate Until Fall

Members of Los Angeles Leftists for Choice and Unity held a rally against the Los Angeles Unified School District’s student COVID-19 vaccination mandate outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse Wednesday morning. (Al Seib /Getty Images)

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Updated December 15

The Los Angeles Unified Board of Education voted Tuesday to delay its vaccine mandate for students 12 and up until next fall. The district was facing the possibility of transferring 34,000 unvaccinated students into an already understaffed remote learning program called City of Angels. 

Leaders of the district’s administrators union were concerned about the potential loss of staff if schools lost more students.

Los Angeles Unified students 12 and over may have until next fall to comply with the district’s vaccine mandate — roughly nine months after the original Jan. 10 deadline, officials announced Friday.

The first large school system in the nation to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for students, the district is facing roughly 34,000 students who will not be fully vaccinated by the original deadline as well as concerns from parents and administrators over the surge in enrollment in the district’s remote learning program.

The plan would push thousands more unvaccinated students into an independent study program, which is already struggling to meet demand at a time when the district, like many others, has major teacher vacancies. Under the contract with the union, teachers only provide remote instruction when students are in quarantine. But teachers still have flexibility in how much they interact with students learning at home.

Board members will discuss delaying the deadline at their meeting on Tuesday, when they also plan to ratify the contract of Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho to lead the district’s schools.

Pushing back the deadline will “hopefully lessen the stress on administrators in terms of the possible number of students they may lose,” said Nery Paiz, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles. 

When the nation’s second-largest school district announced its mandate three months ago, jumping out in front of a state vaccine requirement, some predicted it would spark a ripple effect in other districts across the country.  

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowering the age for booster shots to 16, the Biden administration and state leaders continue to strongly encourage families to get their children vaccinated. Additional states are now considering whether to add COVID-19 vaccines to the list of immunizations needed for school, and many parents and educators say more mandates are inevitable. But at the local level, officials are still up against vaccine resistance — and sometimes refusal — among parents.

On Friday morning, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Los Angeles Unified should “fine tune” its policy to keep students in the classroom. Unvaccinated students in Oakland Unified are facing a similar deadline.

Parent advocates suggest the Los Angeles district might have moved too quickly without a back-up plan.

“We hope the district anticipated a level of vaccine hesitancy and has drafted plans to protect every child’s right to receive a high-quality education,” Katie Braude, CEO of Los Angeles parent advocacy group Speak UP, said in a statement. She added that the organization is concerned about the virtual program’s “ability to expand this quickly to meet the needs of 34,000 more students and the domino effect of teacher displacement on kids remaining in the classroom.”

October data from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that vaccination rates among 12- to 17-year-olds have slowed down, with half of parents saying their child is vaccinated or will be soon. The survey was conducted before the vaccine for 5- to 11-year olds became available , but at the time, less than a third planned to jump at the chance and another third said they would wait to see how it was working. The remaining parents said they definitely would not be getting their children vaccinated.

‘Outside the scope’

Interim Superintendent Megan Reilly said the district “applauds” the more than 85 percent of students who are in compliance with the mandate. “This is a major milestone, and there’s still more time to get vaccinated,” she said in a statement

The L.A. board’s decision could set up a confrontation with the district’s powerful teachers union. United Teachers Los Angeles “made the demand [for the mandate] at the bargaining table,” according to its statement in support. 

But the district didn’t meet their demand. The contract ratified in early October only requires the district to “make every effort” to test unvaccinated students and staff weekly for COVID-19. According to the district’s statement only unvaccinated students would have to continue weekly testing after January.

Student vaccine mandates are “outside the scope of bargaining negotiations and teachers unions know this,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant education professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. But with 500 Los Angeles Unified staff members terminated for not complying with the employee vaccine mandate, UTLA would likely want the district to “hold firm” on its deadline for students, he said.

A union spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

Leslie Finger, an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas, said unions have had to perform a delicate balancing act to satisfy their large and diverse memberships.

When it comes to adults, “the unions have had to appease both the pro- and anti-vaccine membership, which I think has led the national unions to come out with somewhat tepid endorsements of vaccine mandates,” she said. “For students, however, I think unions can be more firmly pro-vaccine mandate because the policy doesn’t require anything of members who oppose getting vaccines themselves.”

Some opponents of student vaccine mandates have launched legal challenges, arguing that shots for younger students still don’t have full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for ages 16 and up received full authorization in August. 

But on Wednesday, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge said he is leaning toward denying a request from parent groups to halt the district’s mandate. And in a federal lawsuit against San Diego Unified, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals last week allowed the requirement to stand. The plaintiffs are asking for religious exemptions. 

Isaiah Urrutia, 10, of Pasadena, protests LAUSD’s student vaccine mandate outside the LA County Superior Courthouse on Dec. 8. (David Crane / Getty Images)

Let Them Choose, an initiative of anti-mask mandate group Let Them Breathe, has also filed a lawsuit against San Diego. A hearing is set Dec. 20 in San Diego Superior Court. And the organization plans to file a lawsuit against a Los Angeles charter school that issued its own vaccine mandate, said Sharon McKeeman, the organization’s founder. 

“No family should be coerced into making personal medical decisions, and no student should feel enticed or pressured into getting vaccinated without parental consent,” she said. “The district has created a huge logistical and legal issue for itself by unnecessarily trampling on students’ rights.”

‘Relentless family engagement’

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, said he didn’t think the challenges Los Angeles is facing would discourage other superintendents in the network from “pursuing every possible avenue to full community vaccination.”

“Whether districts require the vaccine or not, high vaccination rates will depend on a relentless family engagement effort along with simplicity of access to the shot,” he said.

Alma Farias of Los Angeles, who has custody of her niece Cindy, an 11th grader, said she is among those who had initial reservations about the vaccine. But her concerns were outweighed by the prospect of Cindy getting sick after returning to in-person learning last spring.

She said she can sympathize with parents who are holding out. 

“There are a lot of things probably going through their minds right now,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter. “Parents are still processing all the information that is out there, and they’re still processing everything that is going on with this pandemic.” 

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez is among those who would like to see vaccine mandates for students and said he’s talked to the Chicago Teachers Union about it. But he said he’s not quite ready to issue a mandate for students because Chicago health officials advise waiting. 

Once the FDA grants full approval of the vaccine for younger students, that will “help our medical professionals feel more comfortable,” he said.

But he also thinks the federal government should take the lead on student vaccination mandates. Leaving it up to states, he said, means variants like Omicron are likely to spread, as long as families travel to places where a smaller percentage of the population is vaccinated.

The district has been under pressure from its teachers union  to implement “robust vaccine programs across our schools” and to meet vaccination targets for students. But Martinez said access to the vaccine is not the problem: Regional clinics across the city offer the vaccine and 23 schools have on-site vaccination centers. 

“We’ve never had a day where we didn’t have enough supply,” he said.

According to city data, two thirds of children 5 and up are vaccinated, but among 5- to 11-year-olds, less than 10 percent of Black children and about 12 percent of Latino children are vaccinated. 

“Parents are either hesitant or there’s no urgency,” he said. “We still have to figure out what information our parents need.”

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