LAUSD to consider delaying banning unvaccinated students from campus

The Los Angeles Unified school board will discuss next week the possibility of delaying its plan to transfer unvaccinated students to its online independent study program until next fall, the district announced Friday, Dec. 10.

In its announcement, the district framed the potential change in heart as a result of high vaccination rates. As of Friday, 86.5% of students 12 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

But that still leaves more than 30,000 students who have yet to show proof of compliance, and the logistical nightmare of transferring such a large load of students to City of Angels, the district’s independent study program, has also been top of mind for many.

A January transfer of students to City of Angels — as would be the case if the district doesn’t push back plans to ban unvaccinated students from campus — would further overwhelm a program already struggling to serve the approximately 15,000 students currently enrolled there. City of Angels, which was never designed to serve a large population of students, experienced about an 11-fold increase in enrollment this year because many students opted not to return to in-person learning amid the ongoing pandemic.

L.A. Unified has been hit with at least two lawsuits over its student vaccination mandate.

This week, attorneys for the California chapter of Children’s Health Defense — a group founded by anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — as well as the Protection of the Educational Rights of Kids argued their case before an L.A. Superior Court judge as to why he should issue a preliminary injunction to stop the district from enforcing its mandate.

The judge had, before the hearing, issued a tentative ruling that indicated he was leaning toward denying the preliminary injunction. But he has yet to issue a final ruling.

Nicole Pearson, an attorney for the Children’s Health Defense and P.E.R.K., claimed a victory of sorts in an Instagram post after the district announced that it’s considering postponing enforcement of the student mandate. She claimed that the district is considering changing course because of the arguments the attorneys for the plaintiffs made in court.

“They’re pretending like they’ve reached herd immunity, they’re pretending out of the benevolence of their hearts that they’re going to consider this ‘because we thought about it,’” Pearson said. “We crushed them. … They are embarrassed and they are walking it back and they should.”

School board President Kelly Gonez did not immediately respond to a message asking what is prompting the district’s reconsideration.

In its press release Friday, the district said it’s celebrating the 86.5% of students who are so far in compliance with the vaccination mandate. When the school board voted to adopt the student mandate in September, officials at the time said students must be fully vaccinated by the start of second semester to continue attending school in person.

But on Friday, the district said supporting families who haven’t had access to vaccines or “information enabling them to make an informed choice about vaccinations … remains a top priority.”

“The District will continue to support students, providing a consistent, stable learning environment and access to vital student services, while keeping our school communities together on campus,” the release said.

For students who are still unvaccinated, it’s too late for most at this point to become fully vaccinated by Jan. 10, the district’s deadline, even if they were to get their first shot today. Unless they’re 18 and qualify for the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, most students are only eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which requires a five-week window before being considered fully vaccinated.

While the district is citing an overall high vaccination rate as the reason officials are considering suspending enforcement of its student vaccination mandate, it did not postpone enforcement of its staff mandate despite an even higher vaccination rate among employees.

Nearly 99% of employees chose to comply with the district’s requirement to get their COVID-19 shots, but according to one board member, about 1,100 employees remained out of compliance or haven’t been granted an exemption.

The district, which is also being sued over its staff vaccination mandate, fired nearly 500 of those employees this week.

In addition to announcing that the school board will discuss delaying enforcement of its student mandate at Tuesday’s meeting, the district also mentioned Friday that it will now require all students and staff on campus, regardless of vaccination status, to receive a baseline test for the coronavirus next month at the start of the new semester, and to undergo weekly testing throughout January. Starting in February, only students without proof of vaccination would have to test regularly.

Officials had previously announced that L.A. Unified intends to loosen COVID-19 restrictions next semester, including only requiring unvaccinated students to undergo a baseline test and regular testing starting in January.

But both the local teachers union and some parents pushed back against the idea of not testing everyone, citing risks of increased cases linked to the heavy travel season and large holiday gatherings.

Since the district first announced plans to loosen restrictions, the presence of the omicron variant has also become an issue of concern in the community.

The district did not indicate whether either factors played a role in its change of plans with regards to testing.

Parents Supporting Teachers, a group that had asked the district to continue testing everyone in January, on Friday urged families to keep their children enrolled in in-person learning, given the continued safety measure. But the group’s founders also expressed disappointment with the possible delay in enforcing the student vaccine mandate.

“LAUSD has been a nationwide leader on COVID safety from the beginning, making the  courageous decision to follow the science and mandate vaccines. It is disheartening to now see the possibility of a partial retreat,” group co-founders Nicolle Fefferman and Jenna Schwartz said in a statement.

“This vaccine hesitancy was fueled by a disinformation campaign that started with our previous President and has been encouraged by anti-science rhetoric on  social media,” they added. “Further complicating matters is the Governor’s lack of support to enforce the mandate at the state level, which has undermined the district’s efforts.”

In the meantime, some parents who oppose vaccine mandates once again plan to rally outside the district office during Tuesday’s school board meeting. As a safety precaution because of the pandemic, members of the public aren’t allowed in the board room.

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