The Los Angeles Unified school board voted Thursday to require all students 12 and older be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 by January, making it the largest public school district in the nation to mandate coronavirus vaccines for students.
During a two-hour special board meeting, elected board members discussed their reasons for supporting the mandate, ultimately approving it with no opposition. One board member, Scott Schmerelson, abstained from voting and recused himself from the discussion, citing his ownership of stock in the vaccine company Pfizer.
“It seems to me that the safest way to protect children under 12 is for as many people as possible to be vaccinated,” said board member Jackie Goldberg, who expressed worry for her family members who are too young to be vaccinated. “I see this as a community necessity to protect the children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated.”
The new rule requires that students who are 12 and older receive their first dose of the vaccine by Nov. 21 and their second dose by the start of the district’s winter break on Dec. 19. The board made a distinction for students involved in extracurricular activities: eligible students must receive their first dose by Oct. 3 and the second by Oct. 31.
And for students about to turn 12, they “must receive the first vaccine dose by no later than 30 days after their 12th birthday, and their second dose by no later than 8 weeks after their 12th birthday.”
The mandate will apply to all students ages 12 and older who attend L.A. Unified schools and charter schools that share space with district schools. While the mandate does allow for exemption from the vaccine, neither the wording of the new requirement nor the board meeting discussion clarified what those exemptions might be.
L.A. Unified is the second-largest school district in the nation and the state’s largest, with over 628,000 students, including adult education. While other school districts, such as Culver City Unified in Los Angeles County, have mandated Covid-19 vaccines for students in recent weeks, L.A. Unified’s decision is expected to set a crucial precedent for other districts.
The mandate is the latest addition to the district’s aggressive safety measures to protect students from the spread of the coronavirus. Those measures include mandating teachers and staff to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15 plus weekly Covid-19 testing for all students and staff who are attending in-person classes.
The board meeting, which was streamed live, began with public comment from parents both supporting and opposing the vaccine mandate. Three parents called in to denounce the resolution, to which board members responded by requesting further clarification from district medical staff on the science backing the vaccine.
“Every decision is scary, and it’s hard to know what the right path is,” said board President Kelly Gonez as she expressed compassion for parents worried about the effects of the vaccine on their children.
One parent, Jenna Schwartz, requested that the board pair the mandate with “a vaccine education campaign.”
“You are not public health officers, and LAUSD is a school district, not a public health organization. But if you are going to make the choice to take this on, then you take on the responsibility that comes with it. Education in addition to access,” said Schwartz, who is also a co-founder of the parent advocacy group Parents Supporting Teachers.
The district’s interim superintendent, Megan K. Reilly, introduced the resolution detailing the mandate after public comment, stressing that vaccinating students will help support the district’s goal of keeping students learning in person in their classrooms.
“The science is clear. Vaccinations are an essential part of the multilayered protection against Covid-19,” Reilly said.
The district medical director followed Reilly with a presentation of slides sharing data on the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine.
“When we increase vaccination rates, we protect everyone,” Dr. Smita Malhotra said during the meeting, where she presented data showing the growing rates of hospitalized children and young adolescents due to Covid-19 infections in areas with low vaccination rates.
After each board member spoke, a vote was called and the resolution was approved.
Eligible students will be able to access the Covid-19 vaccine free of charge through mobile vaccination teams that the district has already dispatched to all middle and high schools.
“I eventually look forward to a day in school without masks. We cannot do that without vaccines,” said board member Nick Melvoin, who expressed support for a vaccine mandate prior to Thursday’s meeting.
Until Thursday, L.A. Unified had mandatory Covid-19 vaccines only for school employees, a mandate that received support from the teachers union. That mandate requires all school employees, including teachers, to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15.
“This is a tough decision on multiple fronts,” said board member Monica Garcia as she expressed full support for the mandate. “It is easy to wait for someone to tell us what to do. LAUSD is leading because it must; our communities cannot wait.”