Los Angeles school board members approved a plan Thursday to require all students 12 and older at the nation’s second-largest school district to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend classes in person.
Under the proposal adopted with a 7-0 vote by the L.A. Unified School District Board of Education, all students who are at least 12 years old will have to get their first vaccine dose no later than Nov. 21, and their second dose no later than Dec. 19.
If the vaccine-eligible students are part of in-person extracurricular programs like sports, they would have to get their first vaccine dose even earlier — by no later than Oct. 3.
Ahead of the vote, board members spoke in favor of the plan. Board member Nick Melvoin said he supports the mandate because it will help keep students and teachers in the classroom for in-person learning.
“We want to do everything possible to make sure that L.A. Unified doesn’t end up on the long list of school districts that have had to re-close and go back to distance learning after welcoming students back this fall,” he said.
Melvoin added that public schools have long required immunization against other illnesses like polio, measles, mumps and rubella, “and consequently most parents don’t have to worry about their kids contracting those illnesses and their kids may not have ever heard of them.”
Board member Jackie Goldberg said she grew up as polio was “ravaging Los Angeles.”
“And you know what stopped it? Vaccinating every single student in the entire state, in the entire country, and eventually in a lot of the world,” she said.
One board member, Scott Schmerelson, recused himself from the vote and discussion because he holds stock in Pfizer. But all others favored the move.
Several parents spoke in opposition to the mandate during the public comment section of Thursday’s afternoon’s special board meeting. One who identified herself as chair of a parents committee, questioned why the board doesn’t focus on other health issues threatening children, like proper nutrition to help prevent diabetes and high blood pressure.
But state Sen. Richard Pan, who is a pediatrician and parent, called in to voice his support of the move.
“Our students are vulnerable to COVID-19 and mandating vaccines is a positive step to make sure more communities are protected and ensuring our schools are safe,” he said. “Because vaccines are safe and they work, they’re effective.”
Pan noted that even for those who are too young for a vaccine, having more older students vaccinated will help protect them from infection.
Board member Mónica García said she expected pushback to the decision, calling it “tough on multiple fronts,” but was confident it was the right one.
“It is easy to wait for someone to tell us what to do,” she said. “L.A. Unified is leading because we must. Our communities cannot wait.”
Students at L.A. Unified are already required to undergo weekly coronavirus testing — regardless of vaccination status.
And the district has been requiring all teachers and staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of continued employment.
Still, thousands of students have tested positive for coronavirus and many more have had to quarantine.
Thursday’s vote comes amid concerns that L.A. County’s quarantine requirements for students, which are stricter than the state’s, are causing too many student absences.
During just the first week of school at LAUSD, 6,500 students missed one or more days due to the coronavirus.
Throughout August, L.A. County reported multiple outbreaks at school campuses since students returned for in-person learning, according to public health officials.
From Aug. 15 to Sept. 7, a total of 7,784 student cases and 1,250 staff cases were reported countywide, with a vast majority of the cases at L.A. Unified campuses, officials said.
But public health officials said Thursday that case rates have declined by about 30% in the past two weeks among all age groups under 18 years old.
Health officials attributed the decrease to schools reopening with virus testing, masking and other safety measures. But over the past week, children still accounted for 27% of all coronavirus infections reported in L.A. County.
Dr. Smita Malhotra, L.A. Unified’s medical director, said recent studies from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show infection rates are 10 times higher for unvaccinated adolescents than those who are fully vaccinated, and that increasing rates of pediatric hospitalization nationwide are due to how contagious the delta variant is.
“At this time in history, we are being called to move away from our individualism and make decisions for the greater sake of humanity are specifically for the sake of our children,” she said. “Schools are known to be foundations and pillars of our society. And so it makes sense that we play a part in mitigating the public health crisis we are faced with today.”
Malhotra noted that the CDC has also found the vaccine’s benefits outweigh possible risks to those age 12 and up.
“Vaccination directly impacts the health and well-being of children,” she said. “It doesn’t just protect those who are vaccinated. It protects the communities around them.”
The LAUSD vaccine mandate proposal says that the delta variant coronavirus surge and current transmission levels in the region, including among school age children, have “proven to be disruptive to full-time, in-person instruction and student learning.”
“Adoption of the Resolution will result in the safest school environments possible and minimize disruption to full-time, in-person instruction brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the resolution reads.
The vaccines are free, with mobile clinics set up to dispense them at every LAUSD middle school and high school campus, officials said.
Eligible students would be asked to upload proof of vaccination on LAUSD’s Daily Pass program before Jan. 10 next year in order to be permitted in school facilities, according to the proposal.
The vaccine requirement would also apply to charter school students on co-located LAUSD school campuses who are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
The mandate would exclude students with qualified and approved exemptions under LAUSD’s existing immunization policies.
As the state goes through yet another coronavirus surge, school officials throughout California have been mulling added safety measures to keep the virus from spreading on campuses.
Culver City Unified was the first in the region to implement a vaccine mandate for eligible students.