The Los Angeles Unified school district voted Thursday to require COVID-19 vaccines for all students 12 and older who attend school in person, a move that could ricochet nationally, paving the way for other districts to enact similar mandates.
The board of the country’s second-largest school district voted unanimously in a special meeting to approve the new policy. The panel announced the meeting the previous day, setting social media abuzz and drawing national notice, since it is the first big district in the country to require vaccines for all eligible students. One board member recused himself because of stock ownership in Pfizer, the maker of the only vaccine authorized for use in children.
Los Angeles, with 600,000 students, already had among the strictest protocols for pandemic safety, requiring regular COVID testing for all staff and students, masks for everyone indoors and outdoors, and vaccines for all staff members unless they have medical or personal-belief reasons to avoid them.
The resolution, brought to the board by interim Superintendent Megan Reilly, says students could get “qualified and approved exemptions” from the vaccine requirement. District officials added later that exemptions would be granted for “medical and other” reasons, but did not provide additional details.
The new requirement means that all eligible students must be fully vaccinated by the time they return from winter break, which runs Dec. 17 to Jan. 11. United Teachers Los Angeles, the local teachers’ union, is a strong supporter of the student vaccine mandate.
Students must get their first dose of the vaccine by Nov. 21 and the second by Dec. 19. Those participating in face-to-face extracurricular activities such as sports are on a more-accelerated schedule: They’ll need their first dose by Oct. 3 and their second by Oct. 31. All students will have to be fully vaccinated within eight weeks of their 12th birthdays.
The policy would apply to charter-school students whose schools share space with traditional schools. More than 100,000 of the district’s students attend charter schools. Vaccines are not required for the 15,000 students who have opted for at-home learning this year through the state’s required “independent study” option.
Is momentum building for student vaccine mandates?
Only a handful of school districts have ventured into the controversial territory of requiring vaccines for all students. Culver City, a district in the Los Angeles area, appears to be the first to require the vaccine for students 12 and older, though its policy doesn’t take effect until mid-November. The district in Hoboken, N.J., will require vaccinations for eligible students or regular COVID testing.
Some other districts, such as Baltimore, require vaccines only for some subsets of students, typically student athletes. The Jackson, Miss., schools require student athletes to be vaccinated or submit to regular COVID testing. A few other districts in California are reportedly considering vaccine mandates for all students.
Francisco Negrón, chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association, said Los Angeles Unified has reason to believe it can defend its new policy against legal challenges. It’s on solid ground to require something the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly recommended as important protection for children, he said.
It’s typically the province of states to decide which immunizations to require for school attendance, but Negrón said that a 1922 court case, Zucht v. King, affirmed a local jurisdiction’s right to do so. That case involved San Antonio’s requirement that students be inoculated for smallpox.
“I don’t think there is any question that a school district could have in place such a regulation, absent some other state prohibition,” he said.
Nine states have prohibited school districts from requiring masks, although all of those rules are being challenged in court, or by the U.S. Department of Education in a separate inquiry. At least nine states, also, have enacted bans on vaccine mandates for school staff.
Los Angeles Unified could well face pushback from parents who either oppose the COVID vaccine, or believe they should have the choice of whether to inoculate their children. Groups staged a rally in Santa Monica late last month to protest the city’s requirement that people show proof of vaccination before entering bars, restaurants, gyms, and other indoor public places. And the California chapter of a national group, Children’s Health Defense, sent every California school superintendent a letter arguing against mandating vaccines that have only emergency-use approval.
Of the five Los Angeles Unified parents who called in to the board meeting on Zoom, two commended the new mandate for the added layer of protection it affords their kids. Three angrily opposed it. One father asked if he’d be able to sue the district if his child suffers negative effects from the vaccine.
Objections to L.A. Unified’s vaccine requirement could arise not only from those who oppose the vaccine itself. Vicenta Martinez, whose daughter is a 3rd grader at Clifford Street Elementary in the city’s Echo Park neighborhood, said she believes the inoculation decision should be left up to each parent, not mandated by the district. She said the district hasn’t done a good enough job providing vaccine information to parents, or involving them in discussions on a possible mandate.
“In my own case, if a vaccine was available for my child, I would definitely get her vaccinated,” Martinez said through a Spanish translator. “I want to make sure she’s safe. But I know there are parents who feel differently on the issue. They also deserve to have their opinions respected.”
Board member Monica Garcia acknowledged that many families don’t yet trust the vaccine, and feel their parental rights are being hijacked. But requiring the vaccine, she said, “is not about violating anybody’s rights. This action is about doing our job to be able to offer public school, that children can come to school and be safe.”
Jackie Goldberg, another board member, said she felt duty-bound to protect children who don’t yet have access to the vaccine’s protection.
“I don’t see this as your choice or my choice,” she said. " I see it as a community necessity to protect the children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated. That means people have to sometimes do things they’re uncomfortable with, that they’re not sure of, that may even contain some small risk.”
The vaccine developed by drugmaker Pfizer is the only one available to children as young as 12. In August, the Food and Drug Administration granted that vaccine full approval for use in children 16 and older. It can be used for those 12 to 15 only through an emergency-use authorization.
Are districts that require the vaccine on solid legal ground?
The legal terrain for mandating a vaccine that has only emergency-use authorization is shifting, said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, and an expert on immunization law. Cases from Texas and Indiana have affirmed private employers’ and universities’ right to mandate vaccines, even with only emergency-use authorization.
Reiss believes districts are on solid ground if they decide to require the vaccines. But she noted an ongoing disagreement about whether an emergency-use-authorization vaccine can be mandated. Whether districts could be successfully challenged for that reason, or for preempting the state’s role in setting vaccine policies, is “still an open question,” she said.
In proposing the new requirement, Los Angeles Unified said that despite all its COVID safety measures, the virus “remains a material threat” to all students and to “continuous, in-person instruction.” It cited studies showing that infection and hospitalization rates are much higher for unvaccinated people than for the vaccinated, and that the hospitalization rate among unvaccinated 12- to 17-year-olds was 10 times higher than among fully vaccinated adolescents. Given those statistics, the resolution said, vaccination offers “the strongest protection” available to students.
According to the Los Angeles County Department of Health, 57.8 percent of Los Angeles Unified’s 12- to 18-year-olds have gotten at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.
It’s increasingly common for states or districts to require staff members to get vaccinated. Most often, it’s a choice: Either they get the vaccine or agree to regular COVID testing. In some places, including New York City and Chicago, staff members have no testing option: they must get vaccinated.
States and the federal government have been using their powers to require vaccines, too: In August, California ordered all K-12 school employees to be vaccinated or take weekly COVID tests. K-12 staff in Oregon and Washington must get vaccinated. President Joe Biden announced Thursday vaccine mandates for federal employees, including teachers and staff who work in Head Start and Early Head Start programs, Department of Defense schools and youth programs, and schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education.
But districts have largely hung back on similar requirements for students. New York’s new governor, Kathy Hochul, said this week that she’s considering mandating vaccines for children 12 and older. But Mayor Bill DeBlasio said at a press briefing that he didn’t favor such a mandate, noting that it might serve to keep some students out of school, according to the New York Times.
Full authorization of a vaccine requires six months of follow-up data, according to the health news website STAT. That study is still underway for the 12- to 15-age group for Pfizer’s vaccine. Emergency-use authorization for Pfizer’s vaccine in children as young as 5 years old is widely expected late in 2021.
One issue vaccine regulators are considering is a likely link between the COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and the biotechnology company Moderna and heart inflammation in young people. So far, this side effect has been rare and non-life-threatening. Heart inflammation is also a side effect of getting COVID-19.
Parents’ views of vaccine mandates are deeply mixed. A recent AP-NORC public opinion poll found that while 55 percent of Americans are in favor of vaccine mandates for eligible schoolchildren, only 42 percent of parents support the idea.
Nationally, just half of parents say they probably or definitely will vaccinate their children against COVID-19, according to a recent survey by Education Next. Polling from Education Next and the Kaiser Family Foundation has found that parents of young children are more hesitant about vaccinating their children than those of older children.
Some public health experts are also concerned that mandating a newly developed vaccine like those for COVID-19 could backfire, increasing parental resistance to the vaccines.
Medical experts and federal officials overwhelmingly urge vaccination, noting that it’s one of the most effective forms of protection against serious and deadly COVID-19 infections.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said recently said that he thinks it’s a good idea to require schoolchildren to get vaccinated in order to attend school in person. In an interview with CNN, he acknowledged that there would likely be pushback, but he noted that mandating vaccines for K-12 students is nothing new.
Arianna Prothero, Staff Writer contributed to this article.