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California Lawmakers and Teachers Unions Stop Short of a Vaccine Mandate

SCHOOL HEALTH - Maribel Ahumada says she lost her sister and nephew to COVID-19 last December. So when the vaccine became available this spring she took her 16-year-old triplet sons to the grand opening of a vaccination center at San Pedro High School in Los Angeles so they could all get their shots.

Today, as California confronts another wave of the pandemic, she’s frustrated that school districts aren’t acting with the same urgency. She said vaccinations should “100 percent” be required for teachers.

“The way things are going with COVID and now the delta (variant), it should not be an option,” Ahumada said. “I lost two members of my family. I know COVID is real.”

State lawmakers, however, have yet to issue a vaccine mandate for public school teachers, arguing that a mask mandate, increased ventilation and other existing safety measures are enough. 

Legislators have put the decision in the hands of local officials, but most school districts haven’t made vaccination a requirement for teachers either because they’re still exploring the legality of a mandate or there isn’t enough support from local teacher unions. The California Teachers Association is strongly supporting vaccines, but has so far stopped short of endorsing a vaccination mandate for all public school teachers.

Some school districts have settled for the softer alternative of a weekly COVID-19 test, as some are facing advocacy groups that are actively fighting against a vaccination requirement for teachers until the FDA fully authorizes the vaccines. 

Fifty-four percent of eligible Californians have been fully vaccinated. Coronavirus positivity rates are skewing towards younger, healthier people resulting in lower rates of hospitalization and death. 

At the same time, however, the delta variant is breathing new life into what has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine. Public health experts say students, especially younger children, should be safe from getting COVID-19 at school even if their teachers aren’t vaccinated, as long as everyone on campus wears masks and follows hygiene protocols. In rare instances, young children were diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome after contracting COVID-19. So far, California has had more than 300 cases of the syndrome and 37 have died nationwide. 

But spread among unvaccinated adults at schools could threaten a return to distance learning, which devastated students’ mental health and worsened the academic achievement gap along the lines of race, income and disability

“The need for children to be back in in-person learning has been well demonstrated,” said Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco. “We should do everything we can to keep students in classrooms, including mandating teacher vaccinations.” 

The best defense

Megan Bacigalupi, the executive director of Open Schools California, says school districts should take all precautions to ensure in-classroom instruction all year.

“Vaccination is the way out of this,” she said. “Getting everyone vaccinated protects everyone, including kids.”

Bacigalupi has two kids, a third grader and kindergartener, in the Oakland Unified School District. She said she’s not too worried about her kids’ safety because younger children are less likely to catch or fall seriously ill from COVID-19. But she is worried that high case numbers among teachers would force the district to revert to distance learning.

(Joe Hong is the K-12 education reporter for CalMatters. His stories use data to highlight inequities in California’s public schools. Before joining CalMatters.org in June 2021, he was the education reporter at KPBS, the public media station in San Diego. Previously, he covered the schools in the Coachella Valley for The Desert Sun, a daily newspaper in Palm Springs.)