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Los Angeles Is Now The Largest School District To Require Vaccines For Students

Students exit Hollywood High School after a day of school in Los Angeles.
Bing Guan
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Students exit Hollywood High School after a day of school in Los Angeles.

Updated September 9, 2021 at 7:08 PM ET

The Los Angeles Unified School District — the second largest in the U.S. — has approved a measure mandating that students 12 and over be vaccinated against COVID-19 if they want to attend in-person classes.

The move could potentially invite legal challenges — but it could also pave the way for other districts to follow suit.

One by one, the eight-member school board on Thursday cited scientific evidence regarding the efficacy of the available vaccines, tried to assuage fears about past wrongdoings against communities of color by medical experts, addressed misinformation and underscored the importance of in-person learning. The final vote was 7-0, with one recusal.

"This is a tough decision," Board Member Mónica García said before declaring a vote in favor of the mandate. "This action is not about violating anybody's rights. This action is about doing our jobs" and providing the best and safest education possible, she said.

"LAUSD is leading because we must," García said.

Board member Jackie Goldberg recalled firsthand experience with the polio epidemic, which led to students losing limbs.

"Polio was ravaging Los Angeles when I was growing up. And you know what stopped it? Vaccinating everybody!" Goldberg shouted.

"I see this as a community necessity to protect the children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated," she said. "It is our moral, ethical, political, religious — pick a word — it is our ... responsibility to protect those children."

Another board member, Nick Melvoin, noted that a COVID-19 vaccine would be one of many vaccines already required for students to attend public schools, including vaccines against rubella, mumps, diphtheria, measles and chicken pox, among others.

The new rule takes effect in January. Students 12 and up will need to show they've received their first dose by Nov. 21 and their second dose by Dec. 19. However, students in extracurricular programs face an earlier Oct. 3 deadline for their first dose and "no later than Oct. 31" for the second.

Angry parents spoke out against the mandate

Prior to the vote, angry parents pushed back against the idea of a mandate, arguing that district leaders are stripping them of their rights as parents and caretakers.

"None of you have school-aged children," one woman said during a public comment statement. "This a family decision. ... It is not up to you to make this decision for us."

Others called the mandate premature, given that none of the vaccines has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration for 12- to 15-year-olds. The agency has, however, expanded emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to those 12 to 15 years old.

Megan Reilly, interim superintendent for the district, said she was moved to support the vaccine requirement based on existing medical evidence about the efficacy of the inoculations, the alarming spread of the delta variant among children and a recent interaction with a high school senior.

"We owe this child his senior year and to have a senior year with his friends, with his water polo team, with graduation, with prom. Everything that senior year should encompass in a childhood," she said.

Reilly also underscored the importance of face-to-face learning from teachers and interactions with other children.

"As the second-largest district in the country with a very diverse student population, we know the impacts of COVID-19 are varied among students and their families." But, she concluded, "vaccinations are an essential part of the multilayered protections against COVID-19."

Faculty and staff already had a mandate

About 600,000 children are enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

LAUSD already requires all faculty and staff members to be vaccinated as a condition of their employment with the district — a step further than the state, which allows staff members who refuse to get the shots to take regular coronavirus tests instead.

In K-12 school settings countywide, between Aug. 15 and 29, there were 5,207 COVID-19 cases among students and 729 staff cases reported, with the vast majority occurring at LAUSD, which tests everyone weekly. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health does not report the number of school cases by age group.

Last month, neighboring Culver City Unified became the first school district in California, if not the nation, to enact its own student vaccination mandate.

Copyright 2021 KPCC

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools forKPLU.
Vanessa Romo
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.