L.A. becomes the 1st major school district to mandate COVID vaccines for students, setting stage for national battle

LOS ANGELES — On Thursday Los Angeles Unified School District became the first major K-12 system in the country to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all eligible students — a move that most Americans say they support, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll, but that will likely spark an even stronger backlash among some parents than recent school mask requirements.

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that “a clear majority of Los Angeles Board of Education members either favor or lean toward” such a mandate, with board president Kelly Gonez telling the paper that it would be a wise step to take “within a reasonable timeline.”

Students wearing face masks walk in a courtyard near the front of a high school building.
Students exit Hollywood High School in Los Angeles after the first day of school on Monday. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The board subsequently scheduled a special meeting for Thursday to vote on the measure. It passed with broad support. Now LAUSD students 12 and older without “qualified and approved exemptions” must receive their first vaccine dose by Nov. 21 and their second by Dec. 19 in order to begin the next semester fully inoculated. Students participating in extracurricular activities such as sports have an even tighter deadline: the end of October. And younger students must get their first shot within 30 days of turning 12.

So far, only one other district in California, Culver City Unified, has issued a student vaccination requirement, which has yet to take effect. It was thought to be the first in the nation.

But Culver City serves just 7,100 K-12 students. LAUSD — America’s second-largest school district — serves more than 600,000.

“We’ve always approached safety with a multilayered approach: masks, air filtration and coronavirus screening,” L.A. schools Interim Superintendent Megan K. Reilly told the Los Angeles Times. “But we are seeing without a doubt that the vaccines are one of the clearest pathways to protecting individuals from getting severe sickness as well as for mitigating transmission of the COVID virus. It is one of the best preventive measures that we have at our disposal to create a safe environment at schools.”

As the hypercontagious Delta variant has ripped through undervaccinated communities in recent weeks, Los Angeles has positioned itself as America’s most proactive major city. It has reinstated its indoor mask mandate. It tests all students and school staff weekly. It requires masks inside and outside classrooms. It has ordered all school employees to get vaccinated (with no exemption for testing).

And it has done all of this before almost anywhere else.

Students wearing face masks walk below a sign reading: Warning, face mask required. Thank you for your cooperation.
Students exit Hollywood High School on Monday. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Because of such policies, and because L.A. has also built up widespread immunity through vaccination and prior infection, the summer Delta wave appears to have already peaked here at a level four times lower than Florida’s, with cases falling a full 35 percent over the last two weeks — more than any state in the U.S. — while test positivity has slipped below 2 percent for the first time since early July.

As a result, hospitalization rates among children in L.A. and California are actually lower than they were during previous waves of the virus, and just 117 students have been infected in classroom outbreaks since the beginning of August.

Meanwhile, out-of-control spread in other parts of the country has led to confirmed COVID cases in 250,000 U.S. children over the last week alone (up from just 8,400 per week in June) and 2,400 current pediatric hospitalizations nationwide (up more than 300 percent year-over-year).

Now LAUSD’s decision to implement America’s first big K-12 student vaccine mandate will again thrust the L.A. school system into the national spotlight, setting a new precedent for like-minded cities and counties to follow — and possibly triggering yet another round of COVID-19 culture wars on cable news and at school board meetings nationwide.

The back-and-forth is likely to be heated.

Proponents of student vaccine mandates argue that states already require students to show they’ve been vaccinated against other infections before they can attend class. In California, that list includes polio, diphtheria, tetanus, measles and pertussis.

A student receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
A student receives a COVID-19 vaccine dose at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Los Angeles on Aug. 30. (Xinhua via Getty Images)

“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?” L.A. school board member Scott Schmerelson told the L.A. Times.

“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,” added L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer last week. Such measures could also minimize disruptive quarantines.

Opponents counter that the risks associated with COVID tend to be lower in minors than adults, and that these risks are so low — especially in younger children — that they don’t justify mandating a newer vaccine in schools, at least not yet.

Experts say that both sides have a point. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends vaccinations for all eligible minors — i.e., those 12 or older — and the Food and Drug Administration is likely to authorize the shots for kids ages 5 to 11 later this year. “I believe that mandating vaccines for children to appear in school is a good idea,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN over the weekend. “We've done this for decades and decades, requiring polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis.”

In the U.K., however, 12- to 15-year-olds are not even eligible for vaccination yet, and on Friday Britain’s vaccine watchdog declined to endorse COVID shots for otherwise healthy children in that age group, advising the government that the health benefits are only “marginally greater than the potential known harms” and the margin is “too small to support universal Covid-19 vaccination ... at this time.” The decision was based on concern over “an extremely rare side effect of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines which causes heart inflammation” and can lead to palpitations and chest pain, according to the BBC.

Social distancing signs reading Keep Left are displayed on the floor as students, one of which is wearing a face mask, walk along a school hallway.
Social distancing signs are displayed on the floor in Copley Academy in Stalybridge, England, on Thursday. (Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)

For now, a majority of Americans seem inclined to side with the LAUSD and Fauci, though many still object. According to the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll of 1,605 U.S. adults, which was conducted from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, 54 percent agree that “public schools” should “require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 … if and when” the vaccines “are fully approved for use in minors.” Less than a third (30 percent) disagree, and 16 percent are unsure.

“Fully approved” is key. When respondents are asked whether schools should require “proof of COVID-19 vaccination from students” — with no mention of full approval — support falls to 49 percent, while opposition rises to 37 percent.

This explains, in part, why Culver City Unified and now LAUSD are mostly waiting until November to implement their mandates for students 12 and older; the districts anticipate that by then, the FDA will have granted the vaccines full approval for kids in ages 12 to 15. Right now COVID shots are fully approved in 16- and 17-year-olds and available to younger adolescents under what’s known as “emergency-use authorization.” Fifty-eight percent of the LAUSD’s 12- to 18-year-olds have already received at least one vaccine dose, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Health.

Either way, student vaccine mandates — like nearly everything else about U.S. public schools — will be a local matter, with vastly different policies emerging in different areas. Across greater L.A., several other school systems are also exploring the option of a student mandate, including Baldwin Park Unified, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified and Beverly Hills Unified; further north, the Oakland Board of Education reportedly discussed the issue Wednesday.

Students wearing face masks walk along a school hallway beneath a sign that reads: Stop the spread. Senioritis 2022.
Students on the first day of classes at a school in Miami Lakes, Fla., on Aug. 23. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

But schools in, say, Texas or Florida — states that have banned local businesses from requiring proof of vaccination and prohibited local districts from mandating masks — are unlikely ever to follow suit.

Not that local control will keep tempers from flaring. While a full two-thirds of parents of minor children now say they are either “very worried” (34 percent) or “somewhat worried” (32 percent) about their kids getting COVID, a smaller share say their children are already vaccinated (20 percent) or that they plan to vaccinate their children when the vaccines are “fully approved” (34 percent). A significant minority of parents say they will not vaccinate their children (28 percent) or that they’re not sure (18 percent) — including some parents who are fully vaccinated themselves (11 percent no, 10 percent not sure).

Even in L.A., safety mandates such as district-wide testing and employee vaccination have already faced lawsuits from parents and critics. And according to the L.A. Times, “The public testimony at nearly every [school] 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,” with “some parents also assert[ing] a legal right to make such choices for themselves.”

Now that the nation’s second-largest school district is ordering eligible students to get vaccinated, expect these voices to get a lot louder — both in Los Angeles and across the country.

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