Oakland Unified School District board members at a meeting in August 2021. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

Students age 12 and up in Oakland Unified School District who don’t get vaccinated against COVID-19 by January 1, 2022 will have to enroll in the Sojourner Truth Independent Study program or else be unenrolled from the district, the board decided Wednesday.

In a 4-3 vote, the school board laid out how the district’s student vaccine requirement, which was first approved last month, will be enforced.

Director Clifford Thompson, who was one of the board members who sponsored the original vaccine resolution, drew on his experience as a teacher for why he supported the stricter enforcement policy. Thompson teaches fifth grade at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Richmond, and sees vaccination as a way to keep kids in school. Two weeks ago, his entire class was quarantined because they had been exposed to COVID-19, he said. 

“Because of that, I’m vaccinated and I want my kids vaccinated,” said Thompson, who represents District 7. “We need to understand that the systemic reality of not allowing kids a great education sets them up to be failures. I want to make sure that I protect Black and brown kids.”

School vaccine clinics

Oakland Unified School District holds weekly vaccine pop-ups for students and their families at the Central Kitchen, Castlemont, Elmhurst United, Madison Park Academy, McClymonds, Oakland High, Rudsdale, Skyline, United For Success/Life Academy, and West Oakland Middle School. For more information, visit ousd.org/vaccine.

Directors Sam Davis, Gary Yee, and VanCedric Williams also voted to support the policy. The three board members who voted against the mandate—Shanthi Gonzales, Mike Hutchinson, and Aimee Eng—raised questions about whether the independent study program can handle an influx of students, whether forcing students to unenroll form the district is a wise financial decision, and if the policy might disproportionately impact Black and Latino students, who are vaccinated at lower rates than other groups

“We’re talking about thousands of children being forced into a distance learning program that we know is not strong yet, or being disenrolled from our district,” said board president Gonzales, who represents District 6.

The vaccine requirement also applies to Oakland charter schools that use district property, and any charter school that has at least one student who tries out for or joins a team under the Oakland Athletic League, which oversees school sports. As of the 2020-2021 school year, 17 charter schools use district property. 

OUSD’s student vaccine mandate has exemptions for medical and personal beliefs. Families will have to fill out and submit an exemption form, which will be created and evaluated by district staff. The school board will not review exemption requests. 

While students 12 and older are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to grant emergency authorization to Pfizer for 5 to 11-year-olds in the next month. OUSD is working with local and state health agencies to set up vaccine clinics on elementary and middle school campuses once that happens.

While Oakland Unified was among the earliest school districts in California to announce a student vaccine requirement, several others have introduced similar policies, including Piedmont Unified, Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, and Berkeley Unified, which has a vaccine-or-test policy for students. OUSD’s board considered other enforcement options, including allowing unvaccinated students to remain enrolled at their schools but prohibit them from extracurricular activities like sports and field trips, or to follow the state’s rules.

Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the COVID-19 vaccine will be required for all eligible students and staff at public, private, and charter schools in California. But this statewide mandate awaits the decision of the federal Food and Drug Administration to fully authorize use of the vaccines for youth. Once the FDA authorizes it, students will have to be vaccinated by the following school term to attend classes in person. For 7th to 12th graders, that is expected to be July 1, 2022

Student director Natalie Gallegos-Chavez, whose vote is symbolic, was also against the policy. 

“What happens when Sojourner Truth gets filled up? All the schools are lacking in finding teachers and there’s a teacher shortage. What’s going to happen when you can’t find enough teachers to teach these students?” she said. “We shouldn’t have to take away the education of our students just because they don’t want to put something in their bodies.”

The Sojourner Truth Independent Study program existed prior to the pandemic, but its average enrollment was fewer than 200 students for the past several years. This year, California school districts had to offer full in-person instruction. Families who wanted to remain in distance learning had to opt for independent study, causing enrollment in OUSD’s independent study program to grow to 1,000 students as of this month. But some students spent weeks on the program’s waiting list as the district worked to hire enough teachers and staff. OUSD is still hiring for 10 teachers, one student support position, and a counselor for the Sojourner Truth program, according to the district’s hiring website

“This will bring on lawsuits from multiple sides, if we’re going to tell thousands of students that they have to disenroll, or go to an inferior Sojourner Truth program,” Hutchinson said at Wednesday’s meeting. 

Hutchinson has been in favor of a less punitive approach and wanted to see the district do more to educate students and families on the importance of getting vaccinated, instead of disenrolling students who don’t get vaccinated. 

Parts of East and West Oakland have the lowest vaccination rates among OUSD students in the city. Credit: Superintendent’s presentation

OUSD has been hosting vaccine pop-up clinics on school campuses, virtual information sessions with healthcare workers, and encouraging students to get vaccinated, but just under half of eligible students remain unvaccinated. 

Of OUSD students 12 and older, about 52% are fully vaccinated. District 3, which includes West Oakland and downtown areas, and the deep East Oakland flatlands of District 7 have the lowest vaccination rates among students, with about 25% and 32% of students 12 and older reporting being fully vaccinated. 

Ninety percent of staff and 94% of OUSD teachers are vaccinated, and those who are unvaccinated must submit to weekly testing. Once the governor’s vaccine requirement goes into effect next year, teachers and staff won’t have the option to get tested as an alternative. 

The board also discussed implementing weekly COVID testing as an alternative for students who don’t get vaccinated, but finding additional staff to administer the tests and getting a stable supply of tests from the state would pose challenges, said Sailaja Suresh, who leads the district’s COVID response. Right now, OUSD offers testing twice a month for middle and high school students, which was implemented because of a resolution the board passed in September. Even if students were allowed to test as an alternative to being vaccinated, the district would still need to enforce rules.

“If there’s a student who chooses not to get vaccinated, then is absent on their test day or chooses not to get tested, at what point is there a consequence, if any, that applies to our students? There’s an inherent challenge in deciding what those consequences are, because no one wants to exclude students from school,” Suresh said. 

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.