L.A. school officials order sweeping student vaccine mandate, a first by a major district

All children 12 and older in Los Angeles public schools must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by January to enter campus under an order approved Thursday by the Board of Education, the first such mandate among the nation’s largest school systems.

The requirement cements the standing of the L.A. Unified School District as an early adopter of COVID-19 school safety measures that are wide-reaching and aggressive — a posture that has resulted in both praise and pushback. The nation’s second-largest school system has moved faster and more comprehensively than most others in testing all students and employees for infection every week, requiring masks indoors and outdoors and ordering employees to get vaccinated.

L.A. schools Interim Supt. Megan K. Reilly said the student mandate was the next logical step to keep children, staff and community members safer from a COVID-19 pandemic that still poses significant risks.

“We’ve always approached safety with a multilayered approach: masks, air filtration and coronavirus screening,” Reilly told The Times. “But we are seeing without a doubt that the vaccines are one of the clearest pathways to protecting individuals from getting severe sickness as well as for mitigating transmission of the COVID virus. It is one of the best preventive measures that we have at our disposal to create a safe environment at schools.”

New York City’s school system, the largest in the nation, so far has ordered athletes in high-contact sports to begin the vaccination process before competition starts. New York City and Chicago, the nation’s third-largest district, are among a growing number of school systems that have enacted mandates for employees.

The L.A. district action “could provide the model for a comprehensive school response to COVID mitigation, so that schools can move on to student academic and mental health recovery plans,” said Odis Johnson Jr., executive director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “Mandatory vaccination mandates move us forward toward finally addressing students’ developmental, social and academic well-being.”

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer thanked LAUSD officials “for really elevating the importance of using vaccinations as one of the most powerful tools” saying the move will “add another layer of protection” at schools.

One vaccine, made by Pfizer, has received full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for people 16 and older. Those who are 12 to 15 can be inoculated under a federal emergency use authorization. L.A. Unified is not waiting for full vaccine approval for those 12 to 15 — although that approval by the FDA is widely expected in the coming weeks. And President Biden on Thursday pledged to expedite approval of the vaccine for younger children.

Reilly estimated that about 225,000 student in grades 6 through 12 would fall under the policy. District officials estimate that roughly 80,000 students are not yet vaccinated.

Students who are not vaccinated by the deadline will not be allowed on campus, she said. The alternative for them would be to enter remote learning through independent study, a program that was overwhelmed at the start of the school year when more than 10,000 students signed up.

Under the district’s mandate, the first students affected would be those involved in activities such as sports. Those students who are 12 or older would have to receive a first vaccine dose no later than Oct. 3 and a second dose no later than Oct. 31. Students will be prohibited from participation without vaccination.

All students 12 and older would have to receive a first dose no later than Nov. 21 and a second dose no later than Dec. 19. The final day of classes before winter break is Dec. 17.

Students return to class on Jan. 11. By Jan 10, proof of vaccination would have to be “uploaded and approved in LAUSD’s Daily Pass program except for those students with qualified and approved exemptions and conditional admissions,” the proposal says.

The Daily Pass allows a student onto campus and so far has tracked weekly coronavirus test results. Parents and students also use the pass to self-report whether a student has symptoms.

Vaccine exemptions could be obtained for documented medical reasons.

The resolution also stipulates that younger students would have to receive their first vaccine dose no later than 30 days after their 12th birthday and their second dose no later than eight weeks after that birthday.

District officials, experts and attorneys said that litigation was likely.

“I expect that there will be numerous legal challenges to the vaccine mandate for children in LAUSD and other districts,” said Scott Davison, an attorney representing Let Them Breathe, an organization with active litigation challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom and state health officials over the statewide school mask mandate as well as guidelines for quarantines and coronavirus testing.

Davison asserted that the coronavirus vaccine was more akin in effectiveness and legal standing to the flu vaccine, which is not typically required at schools. The required polio vaccination, in contrast, has a lengthy track record of successfully preventing a disease that seriously afflicted children.

“We know vaccines are effective at preventing severe disease,” Davison said. “The question for the [COVID] vaccines will be whether they are needed in a population like children who are already at incredibly low risk.”

There is debate over the extent of the risk to children — for whom serious illness and hospitalization are rare. But increasing numbers of children have become infected recently and hospitalized with the recent spread of the highly contagious Delta variant and reopening of school. It’s also possible for children to pass on the infection to others, including those extremely vulnerable to the disease.

In citing the importance of acting now, the resolution states that the school system plays a fundamental role in efforts “to safeguard the educational, health and safety needs of Los Angeles Unified’s students and community as a whole within its geographic boundaries.”

The resolution notes recent increases in coronavirus rates and hospitalization among children: “Children are at a greater risk from contracting the Delta variant due to high transmission rates with possibility of long-term symptoms from COVID-19.”

Johnson of Johns Hopkins said, “Case law is on the side of LAUSD’s vaccination mandate. Supreme Court rulings have not only upheld vaccination requirements for public school attendance, they have also permitted municipal systems to require proof of vaccination.”

Officials expect most families to be supportive, although parents are divided, and opposition came quickly.

“We are saying NO because there is not enough evidence for long-term side effects for the kids,” parent Ronan Pestes wrote in an email to the Board of Education prior to the vote. “You failed our children. If you pass this resolution to mandate vaccines on our kids I am expecting your resignation the minute after.”

Parent Ariel Harman-Holmes said she was “thrilled” at the news.

Although she acknowledged having many complaints about L.A. Unified, “they’re doing an admirable job of curtailing COVID spread. … This mandate is a wonderful example for other school districts of how to protect our school communities.”

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