L.A. Unified to meet Thursday over COVID vaccine mandate for students; approval likely

The Los Angeles Board of Education has scheduled a meeting Thursday to vote on a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for eligible students, an action likely to be approved as a majority of board members already have said that they either favor or are leaning toward such a requirement.

The special meeting was posted shortly after the school board emerged from a closed session Wednesday for which the only listed item was “anticipated litigation.”

The nation’s second-largest school system has been sued multiple times over its COVID-safety measures, which are among the most strict and sweeping in the nation. A vaccine mandate also could bring a lawsuit, district officials have acknowledged to The Times.

To date, none of the litigation has thwarted L.A. Unified from such steps as ordering all students and employees to be tested each week for the coronavirus and requiring all employees to be vaccinated.

The board would not likely have approved a special meeting over a vaccine mandate if it wasn’t clear that the board would approve it. The board has yet to discuss a vaccine mandate in open session, but it has apparently come up in at least two closed sessions, according to district sources.

A district statement on Wednesday foreshadowed likely approval: “The Los Angeles Unified Board of Education will vote at their next meeting on whether to mandate vaccines for all eligible students. Science clearly shows that vaccinations are an essential part of protecting our communities. Further details will be forthcoming after the vote.”

School board member Nick Melvoin on Wednesday left no doubt where he stands.

“Our goal is to keep kids and teachers as safe as possible and in the classroom,” Melvoin said. “A medical and scientific consensus has emerged that the best way to protect everyone in our schools and communities is for all those who are eligible to get vaccinated. This policy is the best way to make that happen.”

Melvoin also has noted “inaction at the state level” as a reason for L.A. Unified to to take action on its own.

Education officials across the state are beginning to grapple with mandating student COVID vaccination, a measure that could help prevent school infections and keep classrooms open, but would probably ignite pushback.

School board President Kelly Gonez said last week that such a mandate would be a wise step to take “within a reasonable timeline.” Although the board could make a student vaccine mandate decision relatively soon, its effective date would depend on many factors, including allowing time for education efforts and outreach to families, she said.

Such a move would propel Los Angeles — once again — into the national spotlight for COVID safety measures that are among the most aggressive in the country. The nation’s second-largest school system has moved faster and more comprehensively than most others, testing all students and employees for infection every week, requiring masks indoors and outdoors and ordering employees to get vaccinated.

The district has won praise for creating a safer learning environment, but also faced criticism for rules that have led to disruptive quarantines, which have hindered efforts to make up for in-person learning time lost when campuses were closed for more than a year.

People 12 and older have been eligible, under a federal emergency authorization, to receive the vaccine in L.A. County for nearly four months, but many have not. As of Aug. 29, 48% of county residents 12 to 15 years old and 57% of residents ages 16 to 17 were fully vaccinated. In the 12-to-17 age group, hospitalization rates were 10 times higher among the unvaccinated than among the fully vaccinated, according to research highlighted this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Already, the L.A. teachers union has voiced strong support for a student vaccine mandate — and is negotiating for tighter quarantine rules.

Including Gonez and Melvoin, five of seven board members appear at least to be leaning toward a student mandate: Jackie Goldberg said outright that she supports one; Scott Schmerelson and George McKenna are willing to take the matter up and follow the lead of health experts — who’ve pressed the importance of greater vaccine rates.

“Personally I think we should do so as soon as possible,” Goldberg said. Imagine, she added, if by the second semester, all but those legally exempt on a high school campus were vaccinated: “Wow! Life would be almost normal.”

Schmerelson noted that the state already requires other vaccines before students can attend class: “We are living in a global pandemic, so if a vaccine can save and protect a student’s life, how is requiring students that are eligible for the vaccine any different than what is already being done?”

McKenna said he’d base his vote on the best advice of qualified experts when the matter comes before him.

He also said he understands that district interim Supt. Megan Reilly probably would not bring a student mandate before the Board of Education unless it had the support of experts working with L.A. Unified.

McKenna noted too that his younger brother, Dr. Dwight McKenna, who is the Orleans Parish coroner in Louisiana, survived a serious bout with COVID. Early on, Dwight McKenna highlighted concerns that COVID-19 survivors could suffer effects for years.

The two other board members did not address student mandates: Tanya Ortiz Franklin said she wasn’t ready to make a public statement; Monica Garcia did not respond.

Gonez said the district would continue to encourage voluntary vaccinations of eligible students and their adult family members through mobile clinics and education campaigns.

The board president also acknowledged that any vaccine mandate will meet some resistance, including possible litigation.

The district’s previous safety mandates, including coronavirus testing and employee vaccinations, already have faced legal challenges. So far, the litigation has added to district costs, but not stopped or delayed these policies. The public testimony at nearly every board meeting has included lengthy stretches during which anti-vaccine parents implore officials to not, as they put it, place their children at grave risk by giving them vaccinations. Some parents also assert a legal right to make such choices for themselves.

Other districts have faced repeated protests over mandates to wear masks, let alone submit to vaccines. Indoor masks at schools are a state requirement, but governors of some states, including Texas and Florida, have refused to allow school systems to mandate face coverings, with the issue going to court.

So far, Culver City Unified appears to be the only state school system to have approved a student vaccine mandate, and it has yet to take effect. That district has set a Nov. 19 deadline in the expectation that the vaccine will have received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration by then for students 12 and older. The Oakland Board of Education is scheduled to discuss a student vaccine mandate on Wednesday.

In Los Angeles, one major player, United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents more than 30,000 teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians — has already weighed in. In late August, union negotiators demanded mandatory vaccinations for eligible students in a contract proposal. Days later, the union dropped the demand — after the district refused to make it part of bargaining.

“We continue to support a vaccine requirement for all eligible students to keep our schools safer and to help protect the most vulnerable among us, including children too young to be vaccinated,” union President Cecily Myart-Cruz said last week.

Experts have repeatedly urged vaccines for all who are eligible so as to make schools and communities safer. The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine secured full approval for those 16 and older on Aug. 23; similar approval for ages 12 and older is widely expected in the coming weeks.

Although children ages 12 to 15 already can obtain the vaccine through a federal emergency-use authorization, school officials are unlikely to mandate any vaccine for children without full regulatory approval.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s senior infectious disease expert, said that there should be enough data by early October for the FDA to consider whether the vaccine, under an emergency-use authorization, is safe for children younger than 12. “There’s a reasonable chance” that the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine could get FDA clearance for that group before the upcoming holiday season, said Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He made his comments during interviews on the CNN and ABC networks.

But the call for student vaccine mandates will be local for now.

California school districts have clear authority to act if they want to, said Debra Duardo, superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which provides support and oversight for the county’s 80 K-12 districts.

“We’ve mandated other vaccinations, as you know,” Duardo said, mentioning the polio vaccine and the Tdap, which provides protection against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. The imperative is “to ensure public safety, so school districts are able to require their students to be vaccinated.”

Several other local school systems have acknowledged they are looking at the option of a student mandate, including Baldwin Park Unified, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified and Beverly Hills Unified.

L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said she anticipates the county would continue to see coronavirus infections brought into schools by students and adults. This influx would inevitably lead to some infections spreading from person to person on campus as schools, colleges and universities welcome students back.

But she also emphasized that outbreaks on a campus should be rare — provided that officials adhere to safety measures including masking, good ventilation, frequent cleaning, testing, hand-washing and physical distancing.

And it would help a lot if more eligible students and adults got inoculated, she said.

“If all eligible children were vaccinated, we would dramatically reduce transmission both in school settings and in after-school sports programs and in extracurricular activities,” Ferrer said last week.

Although the state is taking no position on the matter, its top education official said he encourages any reasonable move that would improve vaccination rates and therefore save lives.

“I applaud every entity in the state that’s thinking about vaccine mandates,” said state Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. “This should be about whatever it takes to help us get more vaccines because of the high rate of infection that we were seeing due to the Delta variant. The number of children and adults who are dying and experiencing serious consequences dictates the need for more vaccines.”

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