(CN) — The Los Angeles Unified School District's Board of Education voted Tuesday to push back its deadline for students to be vaccinated against Covid-19 until the start of the next school year, in the fall of 2022.
The district's student vaccine mandate, one of the most stringent in the country, was previously set to go into effect in January 2022. Students had the option of seeking a medical exemption, but not a religious or personal belief exemption. Students that hadn't received both doses of a Covid vaccine or an exemption would have been barred from attending class in person and would have been automatically enrolled in a remote learning independent study program. That would have meant an influx of more than 30,000 students into the program, requiring a massive shift in resources from traditional classrooms to online ones.
Board members expressed reluctance at their decision, but said that to move tens of thousands of students into different classrooms would mean moving hundreds of teachers, leading to bigger class sizes for those complying with the vaccine mandate.
"This change is not about conceding to a vocal minority of anti-vaxxers," said Board President Kelly Gonez. "We still believe in the efficacy and safety of the Covid vaccines."
She said that enforcing the January deadline would "destabilize all schools' academic programs," and would negatively impact all students.
"Taking teachers out of in-person classrooms so they can instruct the much smaller number of unvaccinated students in the state-mandated online independent study program penalizes all students with fewer instructors and larger class sizes," said School Board Member Jackie Goldberg in a written statement. "These are tough decisions, but we have options thanks to our LAUSD families' outstanding vaccination rate."
According to interim Superintendent Megan Reilly, more than 87% of LAUSD students ages 12 and older are in compliance with the district's vaccine mandate, meaning they are either vaccinated or have received a medical exemption.
The school board also voted to extend its student vaccine mandate to charter schools, which are publicly funded but enjoy a certain level of autonomy from the district. Starting in the fall of 2022, charter school students will have to be fully vaccinated in order to attend class in person.
The motion was announced on Friday, two days after a judge declined a request to issue a preliminary injunction against the mandate during a hearing for a lawsuit brought by two nonprofit groups: the California chapter of Children's Health Defense and the Protection of the Educational Rights for Kids. One of their attorneys, Rita Barnett-Rose, said the school board's decision was a victory, but only a partial one.
"They realize they can’t remove 34,000 people without an enormous educational disruption," she said.
Barnett-Rose said that the lawsuit would continue.
"We’re just getting started," she said. "They're still discriminating against unvaccinated people." She pointed out that unvaccinated students have, since October, been barred from participating in extracurricular activities, including sports.
Before the vote, more than 50 protesters gathered outside LAUSD's massive headquarters in downtown LA, an impressive turnout considering the poor weather (47 degrees and raining all day). Ian Jameson, the founder of Leftists for Choice and Unity and one of the organizers or the rally, said the board's action wasn't nearly enough.
"We want them to kill the vaccine mandate, kill the mask mandate, kill the testing mandate," he said. "These bureaucrats have no right to involve themselves in the private medical decisions of LAUSD families."
Board members expressed dismay at the protesters, many of whom also spoke during the board meeting's public comment period. Board member George McKenna called their statements "an abomination" and "misinformation." McKenna was the sole board member who said he was opposed to moving the deadline back.
"To those who think you pushed us back: No you didn’t!" Goldberg stressed. "The mandate remains."
Board Member Monica Garcia was more conciliatory. "I just want to say, I hear you," she said. "We have a lot of strong feelings and a lot of different understandings about what would be good for our families." But, she added: "Vaccines are necessary."
Earlier in the day, the seven-member school board approved a four-year, $440,00-a-year contract for the new superintendent, Albert Carvalho. It also voted to reelect Board President Gonez to another one-year term.Follow @hillelaron
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