Thousands of Bay Area and California middle- and high-schoolers have yet to confirm getting a COVID shot — and could be forced back into remote learning starting next month — at districts that adopted their own rules requiring students be vaccinated to attend classes on campus.
With deadlines looming, nearly 6,000 students in Oakland Unified and perhaps 1,600 in West Contra Costa Unified school districts have yet to prove they are vaccinated. Elsewhere, some 44,000 students in Los Angeles Unified and 12,000 in Sacramento City Unified also remain unvaccinated.
Educators are scrambling to get more students vaccinated while facing the prospect of schools closing their doors again to hundreds of unvaccinated kids, which doesn’t sit well with parent advocates who had urged schools to reopen for in-person learning. One thing is clear: Districts struggling to meet their mandates have large enrollments of Black and Latino students who will disproportionately suffer.
“I worry that the mandate will essentially bar children who are most in need of in-person education from attending their schools,” said Megan Bacigalupi, a mother of two elementary school boys in Oakland Unified and Executive Director of CA Parent Power, which advocates for public school parents.
For now, the immediate crisis is playing out at a small number of districts, mostly in the East Bay and Southern California, that adopted their own vaccine requirements for students with few options for the unvaccinated to remain in class. But it could be a preview of what’s ahead for the rest of the Golden State.
Gov. Gavin Newsom in October announced California will require all students to have the COVID-19 vaccine, adding it to a list of 10 immunizations kids must have to attend schools in the state. But he said that won’t take effect until federal regulators fully approve COVID-19 vaccines for a broader age range of students — in the second half of 2022 at the earliest. And unlike the state’s other required immunizations, personal belief exemptions would be allowed unless a new law is adopted to remove them.
Some districts, including Berkeley Unified and Hayward Unified, adopted student vaccination requirements but allow the unvaccinated the option of weekly COVID testing to continue coming to school, the same choices the state gave teachers.
Last month, Los Angeles Unified, softened its student mandate too. It added a weekly testing option with about one in five of its students who are 12 and older still unvaccinated.
Last week, Oakland Unified delayed its deadline from January to February for students to either prove they are vaccinated, be approved for an exemption or sign up for the district’s independent study program or home-school arrangements. The district pushed back on its threat to disenroll unvaccinated students as it became clear many otherwise would be shut out of classes.
“The numbers are still not where we want them to be,” Oakland Unified spokesman John Sasaki said. “We continue to work to educate our students and families, through thousands of phone calls, sending emails, giving latest and best information about the vaccine why it’s important.”
The district does allow personal belief as well as medical exemptions to the vaccine requirement, but both require a doctor’s signature, and Bacigalupi said many in the district don’t seem aware of the option. Oakland Unified would not say how many have requested the personal belief exemptions.
In West Contra Costa Unified, 12,000 students ages 12 and older must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 3. More than 3,400 have already confirmed their vaccines, and about four out of five of the remaining students’ families said they would do so before the deadline, spokesman Ryan Phillips said.
But that would leave some 1,600 students unaccounted for and in jeopardy of being shut out of campuses and automatically enrolled in the district’s Vista Virtual Academy. District teachers and staff Tuesday had to prove they’re also vaccinated. The school board meets Wednesday evening to discuss vaccination progress.
“We’re not looking to exclude any students from their education, that’s not what this is about,” Phillips said. “It’s about safety. We’re working to make sure every student has access to their education.”
With no personal or religious belief exemptions or weekly COVID-19 testing option, West Contra Costa Unified’s student vaccine mandate has been among the strictest and most controversial.
Sarah Eom pulled her 12-year-old son out of the district’s Fred T. Korematsu Middle School instead of getting him vaccinated, because the link of rare heart inflammation, particularly in boys and young men, to Pfizer’s vaccine makes her wary, given kids rarely have serious COVID-19 illness.
“It doesn’t seem like the benefits outweigh the problem,” said Eom.
Others like Jeannie Miranda, 35, who caught COVID-19 a year ago along with her three kids who are in 10th, 7th and 4th grade at West Contra Costa Unified schools, feel the district should recognize their natural immunity from having the disease.
Both natural and vaccine immunity have been shown to wane, though health officials say the vaccines confer broader protection.
Even so, she said, if her kids got the shots and suffered a bad reaction, however rare, “I couldn’t forgive myself.”
Not every district with a strict mandate is struggling to vaccinate students. In the upscale Piedmont Unified School District, spokesman Brian Killgore said only 11 of about 1,200 students age 12 and older have yet to verify they’ve been vaccinated. Students ages 5-11 have until Jan. 14 to provide proof of vaccination, and one in four of those have already done so.
Critics have long worried about a vaccination gap. A Bay Area News Group analysis of county health department data last month found 52% of Black students between the ages of 12 and 17 in five core Bay Area counties had received at least one shot compared with 85% of all students.
Bacigalupi, who is vaccinated herself, believes her district’s “efforts to increase vaccination rates across Oakland are important, through vaccine clinics and outreach.” But many unvaccinated kids “suffered academic and mental health consequences from a year of remote learning.”
“The answer now,” she said, “is not to prevent them from attending school in-person.”