Oakland school children must get COVID-19 vaccination, school board mandates
on September 23, 2021
As the clock approached midnight on Wednesday, Oakland Unified School District board directors voted to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for students 12 and up.
Directors Sam Davis, Gary Yee, and Cliff Thompson introduced the resolution on Sept. 8, and Wednesday’s discussion about it prompted support and criticism from community members in attendance.
The board voted 5-1-1 in favor of the resolution, though the district won’t strictly enforce it until January. In the next few months, the emphasis will be on educating families about the importance of having children vaccinated.
“The community and the school — it’s an invisible door when it comes to a virus,” said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell. “Whatever is going on in the community finds its way into the schools and vice versa. So, it’s a way for us to think about having a safer city.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone 12 years and older be vaccinated, and the Food and Drug Administration continues to run clinical trials to ensure the vaccines are safe for children.
“This is not the time for timidity,” said Dr. Lynn Silver, a pediatrician and director of Safely Opening Schools, a pilot program providing schools with resources to test and educate unvaccinated students and educators. “To save lives and educate effectively, we need to interrupt transmission — not 10 years from now or next year or when the politicians get around to it. Now.”
Seven of the 18 parents and educators who called into the Zoom meeting during public comment on Wednesday disagreed and reprimanded board members, their voices often cut off by the one-minute timer ticking on the screen.
“I am in strong opposition to this vaccine mandate,” said Josh Beth. “Everybody wants their kids and their staff to be safe. Me too. I’ve got a kid at school. But what you’re proposing to do is not legal.”
According to the Alameda County Public Health Department, roughly 77% of residents 12 and older have been fully vaccinated. While the exact numbers for OUSD remain unclear, Johnson-Trammell said Latino, Black, and multiracial students have the lowest vaccination rates in both the county and the school district.
Several parents, board members, and student representatives noted that the resolution might create educational inequities within OUSD’s student population.
“What’s going to happen for our students who still don’t want to get vaccinated?” asked Natalie Gallegos Chavez, OUSD student board director and a junior at Oakland High School. “How are we supposed to know that all of our students are going to remain safe and they’re going to be allowed to get the education that they need?”
Before the board meeting, Davis, who represents District 1, attended meetings with the All City Council Student Union, where student leaders said they were worried that their unvaccinated peers would be pushed out of school. This prompted Davis to introduce an amendment that would allow students to qualify for a personal belief exemption if they provide proof that they consulted with a medical professional about getting vaccinated.
Board President Shanthi Gonzales, who abstained in the vote, said a vaccine exemption would require a doctor’s note, making it difficult for some students.
“Even to get a personal exemption, it’s throwing up a barrier for a lot of families who may not have access to regular health care, may not have a regular doctor,” she said.
In casting the only dissenting vote, Director Mike Hutchinson pointed out that the resolution didn’t provide an alternative for unvaccinated students .
“I don’t want any of our families to feel like they’re not allowed and they’re not welcome to come to school, especially since I think the impact is going to be on the families who most need in-person instruction,” he said.
The next step is for the superintendent to develop a plan on how to implement the mandate. She has until October to initiate a vaccination campaign, create a plan for tracking which students require vaccinations, and establish vaccine thresholds and incentives.
School districts throughout California are debating the issue, including neighboring Berkeley. The West Contra Costa Unified School District intended to discuss a mandate this week but postponed the discussion indefinitely. Oakland and Los Angeles Unified are among the few California districts to require vaccinations.
This story was published in collaboration with The Oaklandside.
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