The Los Angeles Board of Education voted on Thursday to require all students 12 and older in the district to get fully vaccinated by the end of the fall semester in order to attend classes on campus.
The decision affects hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country, which operates approximately 1,200 schools throughout the L.A. area.
The requirement could invite legal challenges from vaccine opponents—though that hasn’t stopped the school district from implementing strict COVID-19 safety measures in the past.
Voting was unanimous, with the exception of Board Member Scott M. Schmerelson, who recused himself from the vote “due to a conflict of interest with Pfizer,” but said that he stood with his colleagues “in supporting science and reasonable public health policies.”
According to a copy of the proposal, students will have a deadline of Jan. 10—a day before classes resume for the spring semester—to upload proof of vaccination, which would then need to be approved to allow them campus access. Some students involved in extracurricular activities would need to be fully vaccinated even before the January deadline.
The vaccine mandate makes the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has 600,000 students, the first major school system in the U.S. to adopt the safety measure in an effort to protect children and staff against the coronavirus and curb the spread of the Delta variant, which growing evidence shows has caused more children in recent months to be hospitalized.
“The percentage of children hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19 has been disproportionately rising, indicating that children are at a greater risk from contracting the Delta variant due to high transmission rates with possibility of long-term symptoms from COVID-19,” the proposal said.
At the Thursday board meeting, members heard from parents on both sides of the issue as well as the district’s medical director, Dr. Smita Malhotra, who gave a full-throated endorsement for the vaccine.
“We can see that we have this opportunity to make a real difference in case rates for unvaccinated 12- to 17-year-olds,” she said.
The school district has already required weekly COVID-19 testing for all students and employees, and masking indoors and outdoors, based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated recommendations for K-12 schools. The vaccine requirement for eligible students comes after interim superintendent Megan Reilly announced last month that school district employees would also be required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15.
“Child cases have increased exponentially,” Reilly said Thursday. “The science is clear—vaccinations are an essential part of the multilayered protection against COVID-19.”
Board member Monica Garcia also spoke out in favor of mandating vaccinations, saying, “The vaccine will allow us to avoid a winter like last one.” She added later, “This is a tough decision on multiple fronts. It is easy for someone to wait to tell us what to do. L.A. Unified is leading because we must. Our communities cannot wait.”
Another member, Tanya Ortiz Franklin, expressed support for the vaccination, saying that she was looking forward to educators’ return to being “instructional leaders and not COVID managers.”
Thursday’s decision sets in motion a requirement that some students, particularly those involved in in-person extracurricular activities, who are 12 or older, get their first jab by Oct. 3 and a second dose no later than Oct. 31. All eligible students under the decision will have to get a first vaccine dose by Nov. 21 and receive a second jab no later than Dec. 19.
The resolution left room for “qualified and approved exemptions,” although it was not clear from the proposal who would be a candidate for exemption.
Under the resolution, kids under 12 will also be required to receive a first vaccine dose within a month of their 12th birthday and their second dose shortly thereafter.
Board members also took the opportunity to directly address families mistrustful of the government or medical professionals. “This action is not about violating anybody’s rights,” Garcia said. “This action is about doing our job, to be able to bring children to school and have them be safe.”
Board president Kelly Gomez invoked her own role as a mother in making her argument for the vaccine requirement. She acknowledged parenting through a pandemic has been challenging and scary, but that “kids are getting sick from the virus. You might think it can’t happen to your family, until it does.” She echoed her fellow board members’ words, saying the decision is “about what’s best for the community as a whole.”
The vaccine requirement comes after President Biden signed an executive order Thursday requiring all federal employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. That order did not allow exemptions for federal workers opting for regular testing for COVID-19.
“Our goal is to keep kids and teachers as safe as possible and in the classroom,” board vice president Nick Melvoin said in a statement. “A medical and scientific consensus has emerged that the best way to protect everyone in our schools and communities is for all those who are eligible to get vaccinated. This policy is the best way to make that happen.”