L.A. schools tried to mandate vaccines. Then they faced having to send 30,000 students home.


A father holds his daughter as she prepares for a Pfizer Covid-19 pediatric vaccination in San Jose, California. | Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

BY JESSICA CALEFATI

Updated


Los Angeles Unified was supposed to be showing other school districts how to get an extensive Covid-19 vaccination mandate for students, but its U-turn this month could instead have a chilling effect across the country.

In September, the country’s second-largest school district imposed strict vaccination regulations for children aged 12 and over, with almost no exceptions. However, the district blinked at the last minute when community activists and Governor Gavin Newsom questioned the idea of ​​moving more than 30,000 unvaccinated students back into distance learning.

Other US districts in blue states are also scaling back previous ideas for student mandates. School principals in Portland, Oregon, opened a discussion this fall with stiff resistance, while New York and Chicago acted on hold. Not only are they suspicious of mandate critics, but they also wonder whether they should make a request before the Food and Drug Administration fully approves vaccines for their students – a threshold Los Angeles Unified has not waited for.

“Better to get it right than be the first!” Julia Brim-Edwards, Portland Public Schools board member tweeted when she and other leaders delayed a vote in Oregon’s largest district.

The discussion took place almost entirely in the Democrat-led states, considering that districts in red states have difficulty requiring masks in classrooms. Only California has announced a statewide vaccine mandate so far, though contingencies will likely take months to implement it.

When the Omicron variant rose this month in Washington, DC, executives there approved mandatory vaccination for students on March 1 – but only for ages eligible for FDA-approved vaccines, and with a delay Enforcement by autumn, a milder route than originally proposed. Districts elsewhere have requested Covid vaccines for students who participate in extracurricular activities but no longer require vaccinations to attend class.

The Biden government has urged all students – vaccinated or not – to be kept in school despite the threat of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the virus. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed the “test to stay” strategy used by some counties to limit the time students have to quarantine after exposure to someone infected with the virus. CDC director Rochelle Walensky called it “an encouraging public health practice to keep our children in school”.

Federal agencies could play an important role in generating vaccine mandates for the counties. The FDA has only officially approved the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for people aged 16 and over, although Pfizer recently filed for approval for those ages 12-15. Should the FDA opt out – and later for younger age groups – the districts can have more legal and political confidence to move forward.

Some school districts rely on vaccine requirements as a powerful tool for safely continuing personal learning, but enforcing such a restriction has created legal challenges and disputes within the districts. San Diego Unified, California’s second largest school district, announced compulsory vaccination for its students aged 16 and over in September, but a judge blocked the request this month.

Los Angeles school officials defended their eleven o’clock delay as necessary in the absence of a plan to reassign teachers, consolidate classes and move tens of thousands of students to distance learning all at once.

One problem Los Angeles Unified faced when considering whether to introduce compulsory vaccination for college students is the disproportionate impact the move would have had on black and Latin American children. Only 60 percent of Black Los Angeles County’s residents aged 12 and over have received at least one dose. The vaccination rate among the district’s Latinos aged 12 and over is 68 percent. The mandate would have pushed colored students disproportionately away from the campus.

Los Angeles district leaders claimed their strict mandate resulted in more students being vaccinated than otherwise would have been the case. President Kelly Gonez said the district believes in vaccines and the move is “not about making concessions to a vocal minority of anti-Vaxxers.” And the new superintendent Alberto Carvalho insisted that the change in thinking of the board of directors was “an evolution” rather than a “reversal”.

Still, health experts say it was a missed opportunity.

“Not prescribing the vaccine now is clearly discouraging other districts from advancing the issue,” said Yvonne Maldonado, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ infectious diseases committee and professor of epidemiology at Stanford University. “Waiting until autumn to implement the mandate means that the virus will have devastating effects on many children for another school year. It’s the wrong call. “

Democratic State California Senator Richard Pan, who pioneered a law to toughen California vaccination requirements for children, said racial inequality in Covid-19 vaccination rates among children means the government needs to do more to help these families Making shots widely available while providing misinformation about the vaccine.

He doesn’t think Los Angeles’ decision to postpone enforcing its student mandate will prevent other districts from implementing their own mandates.

“Everyone thinks, how do we keep schools open?” Said Pan in an interview. “Without mandates for students, there will be even more closings due to outbreaks. With mandates, the number of children who cannot attend because they are not vaccinated will be relatively few. “

Districts elsewhere have weighed which students are most likely to be unvaccinated if a mandate is enforced and the disadvantages of having those students study remotely.

Outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has just enacted tough new rules requiring children 5 and older to be vaccinated to eat indoors in restaurants or participate in school sports teams, but he was unwilling to consider to request the vaccine for school attendance. This could block large numbers of children from their classrooms, he said – the same problem Los Angeles faced.

Mayor-elect Eric Adams, who will take office January 1, said in May he was against a vaccination mandate for New York students. Recently, Adams said he would consider a mandate for students 12 and older if the FDA fully approves the syringe.

Chicago’s interest also depends on full FDA approval, said Allison Arwady, the city’s public health officer. She went a step further, saying the city would not consider a student vaccination mandate until the federal government fully approves doses for young children, which may not happen until next summer or fall.

In Portland, Oregon, where unmasked protesters disrupted a November meeting held to discuss the possibility of a student vaccine mandate, school board members raised the sensitive issue and delayed a vote by six months.

Several other counties across the country, including Seattle and Cincinnati, have debated Covid-19 vaccine mandates for college students, while more than a dozen have imposed requirements that only apply to student athletes. Pennsylvania and Texas took the opposite approach, passing laws banning student seats.

Los Angeles Unified’s change of direction could empower those opposed to Covid-19 vaccines.

“Changing course teaches those who don’t want to be vaccinated to stay strong because if they do so in sufficient numbers the system will do them justice,” warned Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health advocacy group.

Alexander Nieves contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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