A vaccine pop-up clinic was held for students at Oakland Technical High School on Friday, Sept. 6. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Oakland students could soon be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

School board directors Sam Davis, Gary Yee, and Clifford Thompson introduced a resolution on Sept. 8 that would require vaccination of students ages 12 and up, and the board could hold a discussion on the matter next week, though the agenda for the meeting hasn’t been published yet. A majority of the seven board members say they support the proposal. 

“If we’re going to move past this ongoing crisis, it’ll be through increasing our numbers of vaccinations, and we need to push that at every level,” said District 1 Director Sam Davis. “Forty percent of the COVID cases in Oakland in August were at middle and high schools. It should be close to nothing if we had everybody vaccinated.”

Health experts and public officials have repeatedly stressed the importance of getting as many people as possible vaccinated as the way out of the pandemic. The tension is over whether school districts like Oakland should require students to get vaccinated, or encourage them in other ways.

The board members who oppose the mandate, or are undecided, say they’re unsure if OUSD has the legal authority to impose a vaccine requirement before the state has required it. They also are worried about what could happen to students who refuse to get vaccinated. 

Vaccine clinics and information sessions

Oakland Unified School District holds weekly vaccine pop-ups for students and their families at Castlemont, Fremont, Madison Park Academy, MetWest, Oakland High, Oakland International, Oakland Tech, Rudsdale, Skyline, and United For Success/Life Academy. For more information, visit ousd.org/vaccine.

OUSD is also hosting two vaccine information sessions in September, featuring the All City Council student union and the Office of Equity. The panels will feature a doctor, student, and a parent.

Monday, Sept. 27 from 5-6:30 p.m. in Spanish
Zoom link: ousd.zoom.us/s/81165414990

Tuesday, Sept. 28 from 5-7:30 in English, with a focus on the Black community.
Zoom link: ousd.zoom.us/s/85869623729 

County and state have not made recommendations

OUSD’s COVID policies are based on state and local recommendations, but the state and county have yet to weigh in on the issue of whether students should be required to get the COVID vaccine. The California Department of Public Health usually decides which vaccines students need to attend public schools, and that list includes several doses of vaccines to prevent polio, hepatitis, measles, chickenpox, and other diseases. 

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that all school employees, including teachers, in California must be vaccinated by Sept. 7 or get tested once a week. The student vaccine requirement that OUSD is considering doesn’t include a testing alternative to vaccination.

“It would be super helpful if we got a stronger recommendation from the state. Just like when Governor Newsom said [in April] that we should be doing in-person instruction in the fall,” said District 4 Director Gary Yee. “Once the state helps us with that, then it helps each district going down the line.”

Culver City Unified School District, in Los Angeles County, was among the first school districts to implement a COVID-19 vaccine requirement, which was announced last month. The mandate applies to all students and staff 12 and older, and they have until Nov. 19 to show proof of vaccination. The mandate is part of the district’s three-pronged approach to the pandemic, Superintendent Quoc Tran said. The other two big measures are to require weekly testing of all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, and universal masking.

“We went full-on from the get go rather than doing the minimum as required by the state and county,” said Tran. “If we were to propose anything less than the full maximum that is available, then we would be putting our population at risk unnecessarily. We would lose credibility with the community, knowing there’s more to be done. The community would always turn around and say, ‘Why did you not mandate this instead of making it voluntary?’”

Culver City Unified has about 900 employees and 7,200 students, Tran said. He added that backlash to the student vaccine requirement is small compared to those who support it, and much of the criticism has come from individuals who don’t live or have children in the district.

Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in California and second-largest in the United States, adopted a student mandate last week. Students 12 and older will have until January to get vaccinated, and will not be allowed on school campuses after that if they remain unvaccinated. 

The state public health department told The Oaklandside in a statement that local school districts can implement stricter policies than what’s recommended, such as vaccine requirements, on their own, but didn’t say whether the department is considering a statewide mandate.

“The data continues to show that vaccines and masking together protect communities from COVID-19 and its consequences. Having more people in a school community vaccinated will offer a strong shield of protection for the students, staff and communities. As always, local public health departments, governments and businesses may put into place policies that are stricter than state guidance.”

Vaccine hesitancy among students

In Alameda County, about 66% of youth ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated. In Oakland, nearly 60% of 12 to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Alameda County Public Health Department. Vaccine hesitancy is not uncommon among youth in Oakland, and few know that the board is considering a mandate, said Natalie Gallegos-Chavez, one of OUSD’s student board members and a junior at Oakland High School. 

“I’m just worried about our students who don’t want to get vaccinated and what’s going to happen if this resolution gets passed,” she said. “How are they going to continue getting the education that they need?”

Vaccinated people are much less likely to contract COVID, and if they do they are much less likely to have severe symptoms or die from it. Still, Gallegos-Chavez cited breakthrough cases as one of the reasons holding her and other students back from being vaccinated. If the resolution passes and students have to choose between getting vaccinated or not being able to attend school in person, however, Gallegos-Chavez said she’d choose to get vaccinated. 

Oakland Tech student Sebastian Melendrez Duran and his mom Obdulia Duran Robles wait in line at a vaccine pop-up site at Oakland Technical High School. Credit: Amir Aziz

Elliana Jackson, a junior at Madison Park Academy, visited a pop-up vaccine clinic at her school on Tuesday but was hesitant to get the shot. Despite a health worker explaining how the vaccine works and that it doesn’t have the actual virus in it, Jackson returned to class without getting vaccinated. 

“It’s weird how quickly they made the vaccine,” she said. “Maybe [I’ll get it] in two years when I see how everyone reacts to it.”

Scientists had been studying other types of coronaviruses for years prior to the pandemic, and that helped them to develop a vaccine more quickly. And although vaccine trials traditionally have three consecutive phases, for the COVID vaccine trials, the government allowed the phases to happen simultaneously, which also sped up the process. None of the required steps to test the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness were skipped. Vaccine research shows that side effects typically show up within the first eight weeks after the shot, not years later. 

Since school began on Aug. 9, there have been 348 cases among students and staff, and several classes have been quarantined each week. Around 40% of the positive cases have been at middle schools, high schools, or schools spanning grades 6 to 12—schools where most students are eligible for vaccination—according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard. That percentage does not include cases at schools spanning kindergarten to 8th grade, where some students may also be eligible for vaccination. The district also does not differentiate between student and staff cases at the school level. 

Students’ vaccination status also determines whether they need to quarantine when exposed to a positive case. If students are vaccinated and asymptomatic, they can continue to come to school. Oakland Unified School District recently announced a change to its quarantine policy for high schoolers, which could lead to more absences for students who aren’t vaccinated. Previously, unvaccinated students in classes with one or two positive COVID cases could continue coming to school in a modified quarantine if they got tested twice a week. Full class quarantines were implemented if three or more linked cases arose in a single classroom. On Aug. 30, the district changed that policy for high schools, so now if there is one positive case, not three, all students in the class must quarantine at home, unless they are vaccinated. 

Areli Lara, a senior at Madison Park Academy, got vaccinated prior to Tuesday’s clinic, but came down to get a doughnut that school staff had brought to reward students for getting vaccinated. She was initially hesitant about getting the COVID vaccine, but after she saw that nothing bad happened to her family members who got vaccinated, she felt more comfortable. 

Lara supports the idea of a vaccine mandate for students so that they can all stay in school.

“Online school was not for me. My grades dropped,” she said. “[The requirement] is a good thing to keep everybody safe and so school can go back to how it was before.”

Gallegos-Chavez, the student board member, said she has heard from other students who feel that schools could do more to strengthen their existing COVID precautions, and that the board should also be focused on that. 

“Students don’t have soap in their bathrooms, they don’t have toilet paper, they don’t have hand sanitizer, they don’t have seat covers,” she said about what she’s heard about the conditions at some schools. “You might want to go in there, wash your hands before lunch or after class, and the students can’t even do that because they don’t have any soap.”

Some school board members worry a mandate could drive students away from school

The resolution to impose a vaccine mandate does not say what would happen for students who don’t get vaccinated, but one option could be for students to enroll in Sojourner Truth independent study, which is the district’s distance learning option. But the Sojourner Truth program has struggled to accommodate all of the families who opted into it and it had a waiting list until last week. 

“If we make vaccinations mandatory, what happens to students who are not vaccinated? Are we going to tell them they can’t come to school? Are we going to tell them they have to do distance learning, where we wouldn’t have room for them?” said District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson, who is against the mandate.

Hutchinson thinks the district should take an approach that encourages rather than requires students to get vaccinated. If the goal is to get as many students vaccinated as possible, then the district should work towards that by making the vaccine more accessible and educating students on its importance, Hutchinson added. 

The Oakland Unified School District board could hold a discussion and vote on a vaccine requirement for students at the next board meeting on Sept. 22. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

Director Shanthi Gonzales, the president of the board who represents District 6, also expressed concerns about what message OUSD could be sending to families by requiring the vaccine.

“If we mandate vaccines for families who are already cautious or scared or anxious about the vaccine for some reason, what’s likely to happen is more students of color who really need to be in school and need a closer relationship with their teachers are going to be forced into the distance learning program that we’re still trying to improve and strengthen,” Gonzales said. “Or they could end up leaving the district entirely or going to a charter school, and that will hurt our enrollment.”

Vaccination data from the Alameda County Public Health Department shows vast disparities in race among youth who are vaccinated in Oakland, with Black teens having the lowest rates. Gonzales suggested that the district try other ways to motivate students of color to get vaccinated voluntarily before implementing a mandate. 

District 2 Director Aimee Eng did not respond to The Oaklandside’s requests for comment on the resolution, but has mentioned to other news outlets that she’s worried that a requirement could backfire and make teens even more adamant about not getting vaccinated. 

Board members who are teachers support the mandate

Directors Clifford Thompson and VanCedric Williams currently teach and said that their day jobs influenced their support for the mandate. 

Thompson, who is one of the resolution’s sponsors, teaches fifth grade at a Richmond elementary school and supports mandating the vaccine because it will enable more students to stay in school, where they learn best, he said. 

“The pandemic has really disrupted the lives of so many students. We have students who had to study online and they found it very difficult, and their parents found it very difficult,” said Thompson, who represents District 7. 

Thompson added that he doesn’t think the requirement will backfire, and that opposing a vaccine mandate is a natural reaction for teenagers and others who aren’t convinced that the vaccine is safe for them. With LAUSD approving a student mandate, Thompson thinks other districts could soon follow suit, and that those students who resist vaccination can enroll in the district’s independent study program. 

District 3 representative Williams teaches history and ethnic studies at a San Francisco high school and said a COVID vaccine mandate is in the same category as the other vaccines that students are required to get to enroll in public schools.

“I believe that school sites should be a safe place for our students and having a vaccine will be a step to making that possible,” he said. 

In talking with his students each day, Williams said he’s learned that students are concerned about their health and what they want most is a safe and clean place to learn. While the board recently passed a resolution to provide biweekly testing to all students and staff, Williams is in favor of weekly testing and wants to see the board make that happen. 

Reaching hesitant students

Umoja Health, a collaboration between healthcare and community organizations in Alameda County, recently launched the youth mobilizers crew to encourage more young people to get vaccinated. As part of that group, Caniya Johnson has heard from many young people who believe misinformation about the COVID vaccine, which has stopped some of them from getting vaccinated. They repeat conspiracy theories, she said, such as that the vaccine is a way for the government to track people, or they’re scared that the vaccine will kill them. What’s worked in persuading other young people, said Johnson, is telling them about her own experience getting vaccinated, and about her family members who aren’t vaccinated and have been severely ill with COVID.

“I tell them I’ve been vaccinated for months, and nothing has happened to me,” she said. “The options are to get vaccinated or to take the risk of being sick and possibly losing your life.”

At a recent Umoja Health vaccination clinic at Roots Community Health Center, Johnson was able to encourage a few students to get vaccinated. She walked them across the street to the vaccination site, offered to hold their hand while they got the shot, and stayed with them until it was over.    

At Oakland High School, Gallegos-Chavez thinks the best approach would be giving students an opportunity to ask questions to medical professionals, and to have forums in different languages for families that don’t speak English. 

Above all, she thinks district officials should think through what all the consequences could be if they mandate vaccination, but also should work to make sure that students are kept safe in other ways. She pointed to the rash of cases at Oakland High School during the first week of school that made students feel like school and district officials hadn’t done everything they could to prevent outbreaks.

“It’s ridiculous, in a way, how many cases we’ve had, because it makes it look like the district wasn’t even prepared for us to come back,” she said. “The question now is, is the district prepared for this to be passed?”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.