LA County’s education leaders react to California’s first-in-nation student vaccine mandate

While most educational leaders throughout Los Angeles County appeared to welcome Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement on Friday, Oct. 1, of a statewide mandate for K-12 students to get their COVID-19 shots, others showed more restraint, saying only that they were still reviewing the information or would take a wait-and-see approach.

Under the mandate, K-12 students in public and private schools must get vaccinated against the coronavirus the semester after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives full approval for their age group. Newsom said he expected the mandate to take effect either in January or, if FDA approval comes later, next July.

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a news conference at James Denman Middle School in San Francisco, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. California has announced the nation’s first coronavirus vaccine mandate for schoolchildren. Newsom said Friday that the mandate won’t take effect until the COVID-19 vaccine has received final approval from the U.S. government for various grade levels.

The state mandate would allow for exemptions based on medical, personal belief or religious reasons.

Debra Duardo, superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said shortly after the governor’s announcement that she’s grateful for the mandate while acknowledging that “there is still work to do to build trust and confidence in the vaccine among our school communities” and that her office would convene a task force of local superintendents to help implement the requirement.

Los Angeles Unified school board President Kelly Gonez, whose district recently became the first major K-12 system in the nation to require students to be vaccinated, said she’s hoping that as more government agencies and businesses issue their own mandates, it will promote confidence among the public that the vaccines are safe.

“For those who are hesitant or who have questions about the vaccine, … this is a growing piece of evidence that the consensus across the state, not just here locally in Los Angeles, is that vaccines are safe and they are effective and appropriate,” Gonez said.

Newsom’s announcement comes at a time when local health officials have been urging all eligible county residents to get their shots to prevent another surge of coronavirus cases like the one experienced last winter.

As of this week, 67% of all county residents ages 12 to 17 have received at least one dose of vaccine and 59% are fully vaccinated, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

The department, in a statement, applauded the latest state mandate as well as efforts by local districts or other government agencies that have introduced or are considering vaccine verification requirements.

“The evidence continues to show that the FDA approved vaccines provide powerful protection against the virus and increasing vaccination coverage is the most effective way to slow the spread and avoid deadly surges,” the department said.

Vaccination rates for middle and high school students have varied widely among local school districts.

A spokesperson for Long Beach Unified, the fourth-largest district in the state and second-largest in the county, expressed support for the state’s mandate. According to city health data, about 67% of children ages 12-17 in Long Beach had already been vaccinated as of Thursday.

Fifteen-year-old Taliana Esposito receives her first dose of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine at the Long Beach Convention Center on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

“In LBUSD, we have seen the beneficial effects of having a high percentage of our employees vaccinated, and we’re beginning to see the same benefits among our population of secondary students, many of whom also have been vaccinated,” Long Beach Unified spokesman Chris Eftychiou said in a statement.

Alex Cherniss, superintendent of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, said he expects most parents in his district to support the state mandate, given that more than 90% of currently eligible students in the district have already gotten their shots.

“Vaccine mandates are something schools have had for decades,” he wrote in an email. “If this was a measles or mumps mandate people wouldn’t blink at it. I think it’s news today but will be normal business as usual within a few years.”

Cherniss was referencing the 10 other vaccines that students in California have for decades already been required to get in order to attend school in person. These include vaccines against measles, mumps, rubella, polio, chickenpox and others.

Whittier Union High School District board member Russell Castañeda Calleros said he supports “bold measures” to protect the schools community.

“When we look at what’s going on in other states, with cases and hospitalizations on the rise, it’s becoming really dire,” he said. “In California, because we’ve been so proactive about mandating vaccines and masks … we’re in much better shape than the rest of the country. We need to continue what we need to do.”

“This decision by the governor gives statewide direction. That is what we need,” said Denise Jaramillo, superintendent of Alhambra Unified.

The district had offered several vaccination clinics at its high schools previously but discontinued them when interest waned. With Newsom’s announcement Friday, Alhambra Unified may consider rescheduling them, though no plans have been finalized, officials said.

While most district officials contacted for this story appeared to support, or at least not staunchly oppose, the state’s student vaccine mandate, Friday’s news was not welcomed by all parents.

The statewide group Let Them Breathe, which is suing the state over its mask mandate for students, has launched a Let Them Choose initiative to advocate for choice when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Group founder Sharon McKeeman said in an email that even when there is full FDA approval, longterm studies about the vaccines won’t yet be available.

“Families need to be able to make these personal medical decisions themselves, and there is no reason to mandate a vaccine for children who are at low risk from serious complications from the virus,” McKeeman stated. “If the vaccine works, then those eligible have the choice to protect themselves in that way, and student vaccination status does not affect them.”

In Lancaster, Superintendent Michele Bowers acknowledged in an email that parts of Antelope Valley have below-average vaccination rates, which “suggest that there is still work to be done to build trust and confidence in the vaccine.”

According to a county Department of Public Health dashboard, 60% of residents 12 and older in Lancaster had gotten at least one vaccine dose as of Sept. 19, compared to 77% countywide.

“While there are considerably more questions than there are answers at this time regarding the mandate, it is our desire to work as closely as possible with our school community to keep them informed and to be sensitive to their concerns as we consider next steps,” Bowers said.

“At this time, we do not have plans to advance the vaccination mandate timeline for staff or students,” she added. “We will continue to practice our current safety protocols and plan to conduct weekly testing of employees as needed beginning October 4.”

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In addition to announcing a student vaccine mandate, Newsom on Friday said the state now wants all school employees to be vaccinated. The state currently requires school employees to be vaccinated or to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.

But according to a spokesperson from the governor’s office, once the student vaccine mandate takes effect, school employees will also be expected to get their shots, with medical or religious exemptions allowed.

“The state will issue an updated order specifying that all school staff will be required to be vaccinated no later than when the requirement takes effect for students,” the spokesperson stated.

Lisa Jacobs, Robert Morales, Brittany Murray, Pierce Singgih and Michael Sprague contributed reporting.

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