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LAUSD Wants To Push Student Vaccination Deadline To Next Fall

Kindergarten students sit in a classroom at desks spaced several feet apart, listening to their teacher.
L.A. Unified School District kindergarteners listen to their teacher in their classroom at Brainard Avenue Elementary in Lake View Terrace on April 13, 2021 -- the campus' first day hosting students since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Kyle Stokes
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Los Angeles Unified School District officials have apparently conceded they won’t be able to prevent unvaccinated students from attending on-campus classes in January.

In a press release sent Friday, LAUSD officials announced they intend to suspend enforcement of the district’s COVID vaccination mandate for students 12 and older until Fall 2022. Any delay would technically require school board approval; the board will discuss the policy change at its meeting next Tuesday.

The move comes on the heels of news that more than 30,000 LAUSD students still aren’t fully vaccinated.

Stopping A Surge In Online Enrollment

The current deadline gives students until Jan. 10 to comply. After that, students must enroll in LAUSD’s online “independent study” program. That deadline is now less than five weeks away — and the process of getting fully immunized takes a full five weeks for students under 18, who aren’t old enough for a single-dose vaccine.

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The district’s statement attempts to suggest that a high vaccination rate among students — 86 percent — allows for this flexibility. But the district did not extend that same leniency to its employees — of whom nearly 99 percent are vaccinated — when it fired nearly 500 of them earlier this week for not complying with the staff vaccination mandate.

Instead, the policy shift is more likely an admission that the district is simply not prepared to shift thousands more students into its independent study option by January. The underprepared, understaffed online program has faced repeated issues and has been a nightmare for students with disabilities.

Like other board members, Tanya Ortiz-Franklin favors a mandate. But she is concerned about what enforcement of the original deadline would do to vulnerable groups of students.

“We saw a lot of Black students and students with disabilities and English learners who were [vaccine] hesitant," said Ortiz-Franklin, who represents South L.A., Carson and San Pedro. "We have a big equity gap in the district generally. We couldn’t perpetuate that by implementing this right away.”

In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that all California students will need to be vaccinated in order to attend in-person classes after the FDA fully approves the vaccine’s use in children — in all likelihood, by next fall.

But LAUSD’s vaccination policy is more stringent in this way: the district will not allow students to apply for personal or religious belief exemptions. The statewide mandate will allow those exemptions.

Many Students Are Vaccinated

LAUSD made national waves when it announced the policy in September, becoming — at the time — the largest district in the nation by far to enact older students to get the shot. The school districts in San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland and West Contra Costa County have also approved student vaccine mandates.

Despite this apparent tactical retreat, LAUSD officials celebrated that a solid majority of students have gotten vaccinated. The statement said these vaccination numbers have kept case rates low and allowed the district to “continue to offer the safest possible, stable learning environments.”

“This is a major milestone, and there’s still more time to get vaccinated,” interim superintendent Megan Reilly said in the press release.

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In LAUSD, students can only apply for medical exemptions from the vaccination policy. The policy gives some latitude to homeless, foster or migrant students, as well as children from military families or students with disabilities — though they’re technically not exempted from the policy.

As part of their announcement, LAUSD officials also said they would slightly alter their plans for COVID-19 testing after winter break: Baseline and weekly testing will now be required for all students, regardless of vaccination status, through the month of January. Starting in February, only unvaccinated students will have to continue taking weekly tests.

LAUSD's announcement comes only one day after L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer warned that a new winter surge of coronavirus cases may be about to begin. She said the state of the pandemic in the county has worsened, with transmission rates increasing from "substantial" to "high."

Children in high-need communities need to be vaccinated at higher rates, Ferrer said at her weekly press conference, "and frankly, that’s not happening.”

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).

Updated December 13, 2021 at 3:58 PM PST
This story was updated with comment from Tanya Ortiz-Franklin.
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