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Los Angeles mandates student vaccinations in nation’s second-largest school district

The Los Angeles school board on Sept. 9 voted unanimously to require coronavirus vaccinations for students 12 and older in the city’s public school system. (Video: Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education via AP)

The Los Angeles school board on Thursday agreed to require coronavirus vaccinations for students ages 12 and up in the city’s public school system, with board members arguing that it is the best way to protect students and keep schools open for in-person learning.

Los Angeles is by far the largest school district in the country to take this step as experts and officials across the country worry the surging and highly contagious delta variant could upend yet another school year.

Already, many school districts mandate vaccination for school faculty and staff members, and in California the requirement is statewide. Many companies have done the same, and President Biden on Thursday ordered all businesses with more than 100 employees to require their workers to be immunized or face weekly testing and said he would require all federal employees to get the shots.

Megan K. Reilly, interim superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, told the school board that vaccinations will facilitate in-person education, which she and many others argue is best for children. She cited data showing far higher infection and hospitalization rates for those who remain unvaccinated. “The science is clear,” she said.

The school board unified behind her, with one member after the next explaining the need to follow advice of experts. The measure passed in a 6-to-0 vote, with one member recusing himself because of a possible conflict of interest.

“In order to keep our schools safe and open for our kids to learn, we must use the strongest tool in our tool kit, and that is the vaccine,” board president Kelly Gonez said.

But during public comments, the challenge ahead became clear as three Spanish-speaking parents all spoke against the policy, saying vaccination should be a personal decision and arguing the vaccines are risky. It’s also possible the rules could be challenged in court.

Arguments that mask mandates violate an individual’s constitutional right to liberty might not cut it with the Supreme Court. Here's why. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

“This decision should be made by parents, not by you,” said one mother, speaking through a translator. She noted that the vaccine has still only been authorized for children ages 12 to 15 under emergency use. “This vaccine is still experimental.”

“Our role as parents is being taken away from us,” said another parent. A third declared: “I’m not going to allow you to experiment on my children.”

Vaccination rates among Latinos, who account for nearly three in four students in the district, lag those of White and Asian Americans, Los Angeles County data show, though other groups have also shown reluctance to get the shot. Polling data show many parents worry about vaccinating their children, fearful of long-term effects of the vaccine.

School officials and board members responded that they need to respect those views but said fears in the community could not outweigh clear scientific consensus around the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.

“I know these parents are worried. I know that. You have every right to be,” said Board member Jackie Goldberg. “But we have scientific evidence that says over and over and over again any risk possible from the vaccine is far less than the risk of getting the disease.”

The Los Angeles County Department of Health reports 57.8 percent of 12-to-18-year-olds attending district schools had received at least one vaccine dose by late August, leaving some 175,000 eligible students unvaccinated. Students and staffers are already required to wear masks on campuses.

Some other school systems are offering coronavirus vaccinations in schools, and some, such as Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, have mandated vaccinations for student-athletes. But the requirement to vaccinate for all students is far more sweeping.

The new Los Angeles policy requires students 12 and older who participate in in-person extracurricular programs to receive their first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by Oct. 3 and their second by the end of that month. All other students 12 and up must get their first dose by Nov. 21 and their second by mid-December.

The resolution cited a rising number of pediatric hospitalizations and rising case counts, as well as the urgency of keeping schools operating in person after more than a year of mostly remote education.

Another school district in Los Angeles County, Culver City Unified, has already adopted a student mandate. But action by Los Angeles Unified, with more than 600,000 students, could have ripple effects elsewhere.

The country’s biggest school district, in New York City, has mandated coronavirus vaccinations for staffers with limited exemptions, but not for students. The mandate in Los Angeles would allow for some “qualified and approved exemptions,” although it was not clear how those would be decided.

Some schools have hesitated to mandate vaccinations because vaccines have been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for children ages 12 to 15 only on an emergency basis. The agency is expected to grant full approval soon, which could persuade other officials to adopt mandates.

School officials in Los Angeles reported that as of Tuesday there were 1,385 active coronavirus cases in the district, which tests students regularly for the virus and also requires masks. But only four infections were linked to on-campus spread, according to a Los Angeles Times tracker.

Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.

The pandemic’s impact on education

The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5. To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools. American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure.

Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules.

DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.