“We realize that there are students in our community whose parents will choose not to have their children vaccinated,” Rich Newman, the district’s superintendent, wrote in a Nov. 22 letter to parents. “This unique program is the first of its kind designed to provide in-person learning to students who would not be able to attend school on campus if not vaccinated.”
Newman told The Washington Post that the district’s plan, which is believed to be the first of its kind to work around the state’s mandate, is not a political statement, but reflects his “moral responsibility to provide in-person learning when safe and possible.”
“In the midst of a highly politicized environment, it’s my responsibility to serve students who are vaccinated or not vaccinated,” said Newman, adding that he’s had three doses of a coronavirus vaccine. “I’m working with parents who feel very strongly about this. These kids are young and are caught in an interesting, complex and political time with no choice of their own.”
The move has been met with a mixed response, including from some parents and critics who accuse Newman and the district of segregating unvaccinated students from their peers.
A spokesperson with the governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Thursday.
The push in Southern California comes as vaccine and mask mandates in schools remain a hot-button issue for educators and parents nationwide. But a new wrinkle was featured in those debates this week after the first confirmed infection from the new omicron variant was detected in the United States. The Biden administration on Thursday announced an array of measures to protect Americans while allowing schools to stay open, as scientists try to learn more about a mutation-laden variant whose transmissibility and other characteristics are not yet understood.
While the number of covid-19 cases and deaths are down in California, the rate of hospitalizations in the state has increased slightly in the past week, according to data tracked by The Post.
More than 25 million people in California are fully vaccinated, according to The Post. Sixty-three percent of the state is vaccinated, higher than the national rate of 59 percent.
The back-and-forth over coronavirus mandates has played out in schools across the greater San Diego area. On Sunday, the Ninth District Court of Appeals temporarily blocked the San Diego Unified School District’s vaccine mandate from taking effect. The court’s ruling, which came one day before students were required to have their first dose, came after a 16-year-old student sued the school district, claiming the vaccine mandates were a form of religious discrimination.
Alpine Union, a small district of 1,500 students based in Alpine, Calif., was one of the first in San Diego County to reopen in-person learning during the last academic year, when many districts remained closed. It was also the first district to fully vaccinate its staff, Alpine Union says on its website.
In July, the school district announced it would let parents choose whether their children wore a mask at school. That changed in August, when state legal requirements forced the district to enforce an indoor mask policy for students without a medical exemption. Those not wearing a mask while inside would have to return home for independent study.
The date when Newson’s mandate will take effect has not been decided yet, but the governor said in October that students in grades seven to 12 should probably plan to be vaccinated by July 1, 2022.
After Newsom’s announcement, thousands of parents across California protested the vaccine mandate and kept their children home from school one day in October. More than 1,000 protesters crowded the California Capitol to rebuke Newsom’s mandate.
Newman said 41 percent of the district’s 1,500 students were absent that day — a message to him that many students would not show up to school when the mandate goes into effect. The superintendent emphasized how in-person learning is superior, and a priority, over independent study and other remote learning options for his district.
“How does a 5-year-old learn to read through a packet or from a parent who is not a trained teacher?” he said to The Post. “So if the students can’t come to us, we’ll come to them.”
Newman met with several parents with varying opinions on coronavirus mandates in schools, he said, to figure out the possibility of opening classes at the off-campus Alpine Choice Academy. Among those the superintendent met with were members of Let Them Breathe, an anti-mandate group, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Then, Newman announced the plan to parents days before Thanksgiving as an effort “to ensure we serve those students who are not vaccinated.” It remains unclear how the school would be funded.
While the move was celebrated by observers on the district’s Facebook page, some critics who oppose mandates argued that “separate was not equal,” referring to the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Others said giving families a choice was crucial, even if some would consider Alpine Choice Academy a different school altogether.
“It’s important that everyone has a choice, whether to be vaccinated or unvaccinated,” Lauren Copp, an Alpine mother and resident, told KFMB. “It’s unfortunate that they had to create an entirely new school.”
Newman denied that the academy would segregate students, and said that the district was going to survey parents again in February before solidifying plans for the campus for unvaccinated students. The superintendent acknowledges that his district’s plan could be a blueprint for other educators in the state to follow to get around the vaccine mandate, but he said that’s not his goal. He likened the district’s plan for a campus for unvaccinated students to car insurance: “You only use it in an emergency.”
“Regardless of people’s own politics, this is in the crossfire of our schools, and I’ve asked parents to keep politics out of the schools,” he said.
When asked if that has worked during a contentious time in schools nationwide, he responded: “I don’t know. I guess it’s impossible to keep it out of schools.”