A student getting the COVID-19 vaccine at a Kaiser pop-up at Oakland Tech in August 2021. Credit: Amir Aziz

As the clock approached midnight on Wednesday, Oakland Unified School District board directors voted in favor of a resolution mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for students 12 and up. 

Board directors Sam Davis, Gary Yee, and Cliff Thompson first introduced the resolution on Sept. 8, and their discussion during Wednesday’s meeting was met with both support and criticism from community members in attendance. 

“This is not the time for timidity,” said Lynn Silver, pediatrician, and director of Safely Opening Schools, a pilot program that provides participating schools with tools and 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.” 

The CDC recommends everyone 12 years and older be vaccinated and the FDA continues to run clinical trials to ensure the efficiency and safety of these vaccines for children. Still, seven of the 18 parents and educators who called into the Zoom meeting during public comment on Wednesday reprimanded the board members, their voices often cut off by the one-minute timer ticking on 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 up have been fully vaccinated. While the exact numbers for OUSD remain unclear, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said on Wednesday that 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 challenged how 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?”

Prior to the board meeting, Davis, who represents District 1, had attended meetings with the All-City Council Student Union, where student leaders expressed worry that their unvaccinated peers would be pushed out from school. This prompted Davis to introduce an amendment to the language of his original resolution, which would allow students to qualify for a personal belief exemption if they can provide proof that they consulted with a medical professional about getting vaccinated. 

Board President Shanthi Gonzales questioned the amendment’s sufficiency, noting how a vaccine exemption that would require a doctor’s note might make 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. 

District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson said that the resolution also didn’t provide an alternative for students who would presumably be forced to leave schools if they are not vaccinated. 

“How can we implement a plan where we’re gonna call it mandatory, and there’s nothing in place for where those students are going to go to school? We have a responsibility to provide an education to them,” he said. Gonzales voiced similar sentiments. 

“They’ll end up in another school district or a distance learning program that we know is still trying to get its legs under it,” she said. “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.”

In his own amendment, Hutchinson struck out the mandatory vaccination requirement and advocated for more thorough planning on the future of unvaccinated students before possibly pursuing the mandate in the future. 

“I don’t think we should be rolling out at midnight on a not very publicized meeting, talking about mandatory vaccinations when there’s nothing wrong with taking our due time to deliberate to make sure that we get it right,” he said.

Hutchinson’s amendment was not seconded by any of the other board members. 

In their vote, Hutchinson was the only one to oppose the resolution while Gonzales abstained. With the count at 5-1-1, the motion was adopted.

The next step is for the superintendent to develop a plan on how to implement the mandate.  Per the resolution’s terms, she has until October to initiate a COVID-19 vaccination campaign. But Johnson-Trammell said she plans to continue discussions with legislators, study state laws around vaccination, and will likely hold off on implementing strict guidelines until January at the earliest.

Right now, she is focused on communicating the importance of the vaccine to students and families. 

“The community and the school—it’s an invisible door when it comes to a virus,” she said. “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.” 

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 article was produced and published in collaboration with Oakland North.