Originally published on CalMatters.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.
Fourteen-year-old Allison Cunningham rushed to get her vaccine as soon as she became eligible for her shots.
But when she started her first year last month at Venice High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, she found that many of her classmates had not been so eager.
“People we don’t know will sometimes sit and eat lunch with us,” Cunningham said. “And it’s kinda awkward to ask, ‘Are you vaccinated?’”
Cunningham can interact with new classmates with more confidence now that the Los Angeles Unified school board voted Thursday to require all eligible students ages 12 and older to be vaccinated by Dec. 19.
“I’m pretty excited about it. I’m glad we’re taking this step,” she said. “I feel more comfortable hanging out with people who are vaccinated.”
Los Angeles Unified is the first major school district in the nation to require vaccines for students. But the move from California’s largest school district won’t have an immediate ripple effect. While some California districts have already started considering a vaccine mandate for students, the conversation hasn’t started at others.
“We have so many kids in our district,” Cunningham said. “I think it’s our job to make it safe to come to school.”
No statewide momentum yet
Los Angeles Unified’s mandate requires that all students 12 and older receive their first dose by Nov. 3 and their second dose by Dec. 19, with earlier deadlines for students participating in in-person extracurricular activities. Younger students must be fully vaccinated within eight weeks of their 12th birthdays.
Los Angeles Unified isn’t the first district to require vaccines for students.
Neighboring Culver City Unified issued a vaccine mandate in mid-August. Less than a week later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine for those 16 and older.
But as schools reopened statewide, no other districts in the state required vaccines for students.
“Some districts may hesitate because they feel it’s intrusive,” said Troy Flint, spokesperson for the California School Boards Association. “Some may feel that it’s too politically charged. Others may feel they’ve been able to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 through other measures.”
While health experts hope California’s largest district can be a guiding light for others across the state, Flint said there’s been no immediate rush to issue similar mandates.
“I’m sure there will be some other districts that take this step,” he said. “But I don’t get the feeling that this will become a huge trend in the short term.”
Alex Stack, a spokesperson for Gov. Gavin Newsom, said there is currently no conversation about a statewide vaccine mandate for students.
Even at neighboring districts like Newport-Mesa Unified in Orange County and Duarte Unified School District 20 miles east of Los Angeles, school leaders have not started considering a vaccine requirement for students.
Public health experts like Monica Gandhi from UC San Francisco and Andrew Noymer from UC Irvine support a vaccine mandate for all eligible students but said all students and staff should continue wearing masks indoors.
While children are less likely to have severe cases of COVID-19, those same experts say vaccinating children will help protect their families and the other adults in their lives. Vaccinations would reduce the number of quarantines for students and tilt the school year towards normalcy.
“We already ask children to get vaccinated for preventable illnesses like measles, mumps and rubella,” said Gandhi, a professor of medicine. “These kinds of mandates that keep society immune have been around a long time.”
The FDA has not fully approved the vaccine for children between the age of 12 and 15, but Gandhi said millions of students in those age groups have already been safely vaccinated under emergency use authorization.
Noymer, a public health professor, said the FDA prioritized approving the COVID-19 vaccine for adults not because the shots are dangerous for kids, but because adults are most at risk of getting sick.
“The idea was never that we need to protect these children from vaccines because vaccines are experimental and dangerous,” he said. “We vaccinate kids all the time.”
Oakland Unified starts the conversation
On Wednesday, less than 24 hours before the Los Angeles Unified school board passed its vaccine mandate for students, Oakland Unified’s board introduced a resolution that tasks the superintendent with coming up with a plan for getting all students vaccinated.
“There’s no date set yet for a vaccine requirement, but it’s definitely gonna be soon,” said Gary Yee, a board member at Oakland Unified.
He added that students could be exempt from the requirement for medical or religious reasons, but might have to provide a note from a doctor to be medically excused.
Megan Bacigalupi, an Oakland Unified parent and the executive director of Open Schools California, said districts should first require all employees to be vaccinated first, as Los Angeles Unified has done.
“The primary burden in schools and society should be on adults getting vaccinated because of their risk of getting sick,” she said. “We’re asking children to shoulder the burden.”
Oakland Unified and most other districts in the state are following the guidelines from the California Department of Public Health, which require teachers and staff to be fully vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.
Yee said a vaccine requirement for all adults and students would be ideal, but he said it would require bargaining with the teacher and staff unions.
“I would personally love that,” he said. “Requiring vaccinations for adults might be the next step, but I wanted to move forward with something that’s cleaner and clearer.”
Many public health experts agree with Bacigalupi.
“In this case, I don’t see the logic in having one set of standards for one school sub-population alongside a different standard for another sub-population,” Noymer said. “Especially given that the students have the stricter standard, while the adults are the ones who are more at risk of symptomatic disease.”
Responding to local needs
San Francisco Unified, another large urban district, will likely not need a vaccine mandate for students, said Board President Gabriela Lopez. According to the city’s COVID-19 vaccination data, 90% of all residents between 12 and 17 have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
“The reason why we’ve been safer in combating the pandemic is because of vaccinations,” Lopez said. “It’s helped our staff get back to school. It’s the one thing that shifted our entire approach to COVID.”
At San Diego Unified, the state’s second largest district with close to 100,000 students, Board President Richard Barrera said the district is “not quite ready to discuss vaccine mandates for students.”
But Zachary Patterson, a student board member and a senior in the district, said he believes the science is clear behind vaccines.
“I would support any resolution brought forth,” he said. “As we see LAUSD moving in this direction, it definitely paves the way for smaller school districts to consider things like that.”
Written By Joe Hong, [email protected]
Joe is the K-12 education reporter for CalMatters. His stories use data to highlight inequities in California’s public schools.