LOS ANGELES COUNTY, Calif. — All eligible students age 12 and over in the Los Angeles Unified School District will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend in-person classes under a policy unanimously approved by the district's Board of Education Thursday.
LAUSD Medical Director Dr. Smita Malhotra said during the meeting that based on infection and hospitalization data for children, the nation's second-largest school district -- which has 600,000 students, about 220,000 of whom are eligible for the vaccine -- could prevent 110 children from being hospitalized with the virus through a vaccination mandate.
"So why wouldn't we? That's 110 children that mean the world to their families," Malhotra said.
The mandate requires "COVID-19 vaccinations for all students who access in-person instructional programs operated on district facilities, who are 12 years of age and older."
Students age 12 and older who take part in in-person extracurricular programs will have to receive their first vaccine dose by Oct. 3, and their second no later than Oct. 31. All other students aged 12 and up must receive their first dose by Nov. 21, and their second by Dec. 19.
Younger students will have to receive their first dose no later than 30 days after their 12th birthday, and their second dose no later than eight weeks after turning 12.
The mandate applies to all district students, along with charter school students on co-located district school facilities. Students "with qualified and approved exemptions under LAUSD's existing immunization policies" will be exempt.
Board member Scott Schmerelson recused himself from the vote because he holds stock in Pfizer, which is the only pharmaceutical company to have a vaccine approved under emergency authorization for children 12 and over. After the vote, he announced his support for the mandate.
Board Member Jackie Goldberg, who has seven relatives in LAUSD schools, said she "does not see this as your choice or my choice ... I see this as a community necessity to protect the children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated."
Board member Nick Melvoin noted that "requiring vaccines for students is nothing new."
"In fact, for decades and generations, public schools have required immunizations for polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and consequently most parents don't have to worry about their kids contracting those illnesses and their kids may not have ever heard of it," Melvoin said.
Board Member George McKenna said it would be a "mistake not to trust the medical science at this point, because the alternative is to do nothing."
Several board members highlighted the importance of keeping schools open for students to receive the best education.
"In order to keep our schools safe and open for our kids to learn, we must use the strongest tool in our toolbox, and that's the vaccine," said Board President Kelly Gonez.
Interim Superintendent Megan K. Reilly said, "We know that children learn and thrive best with in-person instruction when they can interact with teachers and friends, participate in extracurricular activities, and more that we offer in our campuses."
The board's student member Parishi Kanuga also spoke in support of the vaccination mandate, but she urged the district to combat misinformation and develop an understanding of vaccine hesitancy.
"I would like everyone to remember the fact that we do live in a nation where communities of color have been affected by our country's medical decisions, leading to mistrust ... students and families may be vaccine hesitant for many reasons, so we will need to prioritize strategically combating misinformation and developing an understanding of the reasons for vaccine mistrust," she said.
The board heard public comment before the vote from both supporters and opponents of the vaccine mandate. Jenna Schwartz, who has two middle school students in the district, said she believes the vaccine mandate is "a step in the right direction" but urged the board to accompany it with an education campaign about vaccine safety.
Others called in saying that a vaccine mandate takes control away from the parents.
"This decision should be made by parents, we know if our children need a vaccine or not, it's like you're taking away our rights to care for our children," said Diana Guillen, who noted that the vaccine was still under emergency approval for children between 12 and 15 years old.
A small but vocal group of mandate opponents rallied outside LAUSD headquarters during the meeting, waving anti-vaccination signs.
Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician and chair of the California Senate Health Committee, called in to urge the board to adopt the mandate.
"Our students are vulnerable to COVID-19 and mandating vaccines is a positive step to make sure more communities are protected and ensuring their schools are safe. Because vaccines are safe, and they work, they're effective.
Malhotra cited a July 2021 study of public health records in Los Angeles that found unvaccinated people account for five times more infections and 29 times more hospitalizations than those who are fully vaccinated.
According to the county Department of Public Health, 62% of residents aged 12-15 in Los Angeles County had received at least one dose of vaccine as of Sept. 5, and 51% are fully vaccinated. In the 16-17 age group, 69% have had at least one dose, and 59% are fully vaccinated.
United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing LAUSD teachers, recently announced its support for a vaccine mandate for students. The district already required weekly COVID testing for students and employees, regardless of their vaccination status.
All district employees must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15.
County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has repeatedly called increased vaccination rates the only way to end the COVID pandemic, and she backed the LAUSD student vaccine mandate.
"We do support the actions that they're taking to add an additional layer of protection at schools through a sensible school vaccine requirement for eligible students," Ferrer said Thursday. ``Vaccination remains one of the quickest and most powerful ways to decrease community transmission and prevent serious illness, which helps keep students, teachers and staff in school. And the COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be safe and effective.
``We applaud all of our districts for doing everything that they can to protect their school community and we want to thank LAUSD for really elevating the importance of using vaccinations as one of the most powerful tools (to reduce virus spread)."
Ferrer noted that while the Pfizer vaccine is only being offered on an emergency-use basis to children aged 12-15, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is widely expected to give it full approval by this fall, before the LAUSD mandate takes full effect.