Three local school districts mandate student vaccines. Others to follow?

3 weeks ago 10

School districts in Oakland, Hayward and Piedmont this week became the Bay Area’s first to require eligible students to get COVID-19 vaccines in the coming weeks, and others soon may follow after California’s top health official said Thursday he’s mulling whether to issue a statewide mandate.

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said state officials have been closely monitoring what steps local school districts are taking to ward off the virus’ spread, which has been driven by the highly contagious delta variant since early summer.

“That conversation is happening — certainly as part of what we’re considering as a state — but no definitive action or decision is being made at the moment,” Ghaly said.

He acknowledged the COVID vaccine has raised concerns even among some parents “who have their kids fully vaccinated against the number of other vaccine-preventable illnesses,” but emphasized that student vaccine mandates are “not new considerations” in California or the U.S.

Schools nationwide have a decades-long tradition of ensuring that students are protected against communicable diseases. In California, students must be inoculated against polio, measles, chickenpox, tetanus and other illnesses.

“To date, protecting young kids from COVID has been led by getting the adults around these young Californians to be vaccinated,” Ghaly said. “Soon, we hope, I hope — as a father of three kids under the age of 12 and a pediatrician — that we can soon vaccinate many of our students and wrap a thicker blanket of protection around these school communities.”

Los Angeles Unified last month became the first and largest school district in California to declare that students age 12 and older must be fully vaccinated to attend classrooms.

The Oakland, Hayward and Piedmont school boards approved similar vaccine mandates Wednesday night. Meanwhile, a handful of other school districts are on the verge of being next.

Berkeley Unified’s school board discussed such a proposal Wednesday night but did not take a vote and West Contra Costa Unified’s board had been scheduled to consider a vaccine mandate Tuesday until its meeting was cancelled so several logistical details could be resolved.

Two of the region’s biggest school districts — San Jose Unified and San Francisco Unified — have not introduced any vaccine mandates.

The hours-long discussion at Wednesday’s Oakland school board meeting mirrored the broader statewide debate over whether students should be forced to get COVID shots or lose their spots inside classrooms.

In a 5-1-1 vote taken close to midnight, the Oakland school board decided that students 12 and older must be vaccinated “unless prohibited by law.” They’re currently eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, which received the FDA’s emergency approval for that age group.

Exceptions will be made for “personal belief exemptions” if students provide a note from a doctor confirming that information about COVID vaccines was provided. It’s unclear what beliefs other than religious would qualify.

School board vice president Sam Davis, who called for the vaccine mandate, said he hopes it will persuade people hesitant about getting shots to talk to medical professionals about their concerns.

But school board member Mike Hutchinson said he worries about approving an order that — if enacted right away — would prevent many students from going to class.

“I’m concerned about passing a mandate that (says) half of Black and Brown students can’t come to school,” Hutchinson said. According to the district, roughly 34% of African American students and 55% of Latino students have been vaccinated.

Board president Shanthi Gonzales, who abstained from voting, shared Hutchinson’s sentiment.

“My concern is sending those families a message that they’re not welcome and not allowed to come to school anymore,” Gonzales said, adding that even allowing for a personal belief exemption with a doctor’s note, there would still be barriers for students without regular access to a doctor or full health care.

Samantha Pal, a student member of the school board and a junior at Oakland High School, said the students she’s heard from prefer an approach that would educate families about the benefits of getting vaccinated instead of issuing an “alienating” mandate.

Some parents and other community members expressed anger at the prospect of a vaccine mandate.

“Why do you want to force the vaccine that is still undergoing vaccine trials?” one speaker asked. “Not you, the CDC or the FDA can make guarantees as to outcomes.”

Others thanked the board for taking steps to protect the health of students and teachers.

“We support adding the vaccine for COVID to the list of vaccines already required at schools,” said Dr. Lynne Rosen, a pediatrician who works for health clinic La Clinica. “It will help minimize disruptions for school instruction.”

The district still needs to determine when the mandate should take effect and how it’ll be enforced. Board members directed Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell to return next month with recommendations.

In Piedmont, the school board decided all eligible students must receive both Pfizer doses by Nov. 17. Students younger than 12 must be fully dosed no later than eight weeks after they become eligible for shots.

Students who aren’t vaccinated would be referred to independent study and not allowed inside classrooms unless they’ve been excused from taking the vaccine by a licensed physician. Those students will be required to be tested for COVID-19 every week, however.

Hayward Unified trustees unanimously approved a policy similar to Piedmont’s, although students there won’t have to be fully vaccinated until Dec. 17.

“It’s a challenging choice,” Hayward school board member Gabriel Chaparro said about parents deciding whether their child should get vaccinated. “I know when someone tells me, ‘I will do this,’ I have a hard time holding my middle  finger down because no one is going to tell me what to do.”

The Centers for Disease Control and other prominent medical institutions have deemed the vaccines safe and effective in reducing the risk of dying or suffering severe respiratory and other health complications caused by COVID-19.

Staff writers Fiona Kelliher and Peter Hegarty contributed to this report.

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