Los Angeles schools, with 30K unvaccinated students, push off COVID-19 vaccine mandate until fall 2022

Faced with more than 30,000 unvaccinated older students, the Los Angeles Unified School District on Tuesday pushed back the deadline for its COVID-19 vaccine mandate to fall 2022.

The controversial move in the nation's second-largest district signals tension ahead for other districts that aim to enforce student vaccine requirements when the country remains bitterly divided over mandates. 

"We have not come to this conclusion lightly," interim Los Angeles Superintendent Megan Reilly said before the vote. She'll soon be replaced by Alberto Carvalho, the outgoing superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools whose contract was approved by the board Tuesday.

Los Angeles had planned to shift students who remained unvaccinated by Jan. 10 into its online school, City of Angels. Many worried about its ability to accommodate tens of thousands of new students at the start of the next semester and the disruption it would cause for staff and children.

Los Angeles was among the first districts to adopt a student vaccine mandate. In September, the school board voted to require students 12 and older to be vaccinated by Jan. 10. 

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District staff were already subject to a vaccine mandate. Last week, the board voted to fire 496 employees who refused to comply with it. 

Los Angeles students who are old enough would have needed the first of a two-dose vaccine in late November and a second shot by late December to be fully vaccinated by the start of the second semester.

Eighty-seven percent of eligible students are fully or partially vaccinated, the district's medical director said Tuesday evening.

Rosa Vargas and her son, ninth grade student Victor Loredo, 14, walk home after getting tested at a Los Angeles Unified School District  vaccination site. California is the first state in the nation to require all teachers and school staff to get vaccinated or undergo weekly coronavirus testing.

Parents in support of the mandate pressed the school board to stand firm, contending a delay would embolden anti-vaccine parents.

"Delaying the deadline would be a terrible mistake," said Damian Carroll, a father of two district students, ages 15 and 11. Carroll's wife is a teacher, and the whole family is fully vaccinated.

"Letting parents shirk their responsibility to get their kids vaccinated will only end up punishing the kids and families who took responsible action," he said in a letter to the board.

Others said a delay is appropriate, considering how many students could be removed from in-person learning midyear. Vaccine hesitancy runs high in communities of color, which means those children would be disproportionately affected.

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"Kids shouldn’t suffer because adults refuse to follow science," said Elmer Roldan, executive director of Communities in Schools of Los Angeles. The nonprofit partners with districts nationwide to support students in danger of dropping out.

Students of color have struggled more than their white peers in virtual schooling and fallen further behind historical levels in reading and math as a result, studies show.

Roldan said Los Angeles has lost about 40,000 students this year who disappeared, disengaged or dropped out. Pushing an additional 30,000 out isn't a solution, he said.

InnerCity Struggle, a nonprofit that serves predominantly Latino families in Los Angeles, holds a vaccine drive in August to convince community members to inoculate themselves and their children.

"This issue requires a proactive parent and family outreach plan by health care professionals who can answer questions and convince families that vaccines are the best way to protect their children," Roldan said.

About half of parents support requiring eligible students to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a USA TODAY-Ipsos poll conducted this fall. Support varies most by political affiliation.

California districts have led the way in requiring students to receive COVID-19 vaccines but not without pushback. 

Los Angeles and San Diego were sued over their respective mandates, on the grounds that only the state, not districts, has the authority to mandate vaccines for students, according to Education Week magazine.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff ruled this week in favor of the district when he denied a request to halt the student vaccine mandate, the online Los Angeles Daily News reported.

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The Oakland Unified School District pushed back its student COVID-19 vaccine deadline by a month because about 35% of eligible students remain unvaccinated. Students who don't comply by the new deadline in late January will be shifted into all-virtual instruction, the district said.

Culver City Unified Schools in west Los Angeles County was the first to adopt such a requirement. Students 12 and up were to show proof of vaccination by Nov. 19.

All public and private students in California soon will be subject to a statewide vaccine mandate, but that order announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom in August won't kick in until a vaccine is fully approved for children ages 12 to 15, which is likely by fall 2022.

Children ages 5 to 15 can get the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine under emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration. The vaccine has been fully approved by the FDA for children 16 and older.

Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or erin.richards@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.