With surges of the COVID-19 virus popping up across the nation and new variants of the virus developing globally, the issue of student safety remains paramount for public schools. Since the Food and Drug Administration approved vaccinations for children ages 5-11 early last month, millions have received vaccinations. But the larger debate, and the potential disaster, is when more schools begin mandating vaccinations for students.
To be clear, student safety is any school’s number one priority. Not only does the issue of vaccination of young people have safety implications, it also has important connections to equity, racial justice, and the achievement gap that has plagued millions of students of color across the country. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not release racial breakdowns of vaccination data, there are some worrying indicators of growing disparities in local data from around the country. Last month, for example, the San Jose Mercury Newsreported that vaccination rates for Black and brown youth in five California counties were only 52 percent—far lower than the 85 percent vaccination rate for all students in the counties.
The pressing nature of vaccine mandates is on full display in Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second largest school district. Under the district’s current vaccine requirements, all LAUSD students aged 12 and older were required to get a first dose no later than Nov. 21 and a second dose no later than Dec. 19 to resume in-person learning in January. The sobering reality is that while 85 percent of students have complied with the mandate, it seems likely that as many as 34,000 students will be unable to return to school in person.
Students who do not comply with the Los Angeles district’s vaccine mandate will be referred to City of Angels, the district’s independent-study program that is already hobbled by staff shortages, insufficient services for students with disabilities, and parent dissatisfaction.
As districts move more unvaccinated students toward independent or online learning, they are essentially creating separate but unequal schooling once again. Many online learning programs have struggled to find adequate teachers for courses. An inordinate number of substitute teachers have been asked to teach courses, and the quality of instruction in many instances has been less than ideal.
The creation of a separate learning community for nonvaccinated students can have dangerous consequences for students of color in places where there are racial disparities in vaccination rates. For years, when the nation legally sanctioned racially segregated schools under the mantra of separate but equal, it became quite apparent that separate was not equal. Could we be witnessing a repeat? Having unvaccinated children, a disproportionate number of whom happen to be students of color, may very well take us back to policies and practices of the Jim Crow era.
So, what are districts, county, and state agencies to do to offset this looming challenge? Here are three steps that can be taken right away in Los Angeles and across the nation:
- Educate parents and caregivers. Despite the fact that vaccinations have been available for close to a year, many adults remain skeptical of their safety. Districts must work with departments of public health and safety to hold forums, discussions, and Q&A sessions in schools about vaccinations for young children and adolescents. Caregivers care about nothing more than the health and safety of their children, so bringing health experts into school communications to correct misinformation can play a role in combating vaccine hesitancy.
- Create better access. Even as more parents and caregivers become comfortable with getting the vaccine for their children, access matters. Though the vaccines have been distributed in a number of innovative ways, resource deserts are still a problem. Rural residents typically travel longer distances to receive the COVID-19 vaccine than people in more populated areas, and many lack access to public transportation. Having pop-up vaccine clinics in rural areas encourages access. Rural residents may also struggle to receive critical public-health information because of unreliable internet connections or a lack of smartphones and computers to access it.
- Devise alternative learning options that are not inferior. In addition to education and access, schools have to ensure that online learning platforms are as rigorous and well-staffed as in-person models. We learned during the pandemic that online learning did not work for many students. Students whose first language is not English and students with individual education programs were among those who suffered most, and these groups tend to be disproportionately made up of students of color. Though schools have offered independent learning opportunities for years, they frequently do not meet the quality of direct access to in-classroom teaching and learning.
Without careful considerations, we could be relegating millions of students—disproportionately Black and brown students—to separate and unequal learning conditions again. Now is the time for educators to be proactive and avoid a repeat of that ugly past.