COVID-19 vaccine site at Fremont High School.
Vaccination efforts are shifting increasingly to smaller community-based sites, including schools. Credit: Amir Aziz

Students in Oakland Unified School District will be able to continue attending school in person for the rest of this academic year if they aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19. 

The school board on Wednesday voted to extend the deadline for its student vaccine requirement, which was previously scheduled to take effect on Jan. 31, to Aug. 1. After that, any unvaccinated student who was 12 or older as of Dec. 1, 2021 and does not have a medical or personal belief exemption will be offered a chance to transfer to OUSD’s Sojourner Truth Independent Study school, and given information about the vaccine and how to get the shot. After multiple warnings, if a student chooses not to go to Sojourner Truth, they’ll be unenrolled from the district. 

School board directors were faced with the possibility that nearly 3,000 unvaccinated and non-exempt students would be out of school, if enforcement of the requirement began next week.  

Directors Shanthi Gonzales, Mike Hutchinson, VanCedric Williams, Aimee Eng, and Sam Davis voted to extend the deadline. Directors Gary Yee and Clifford Thompson abstained.

more resources about vaccines for students

Oakland Unified hosts vaccine clinics for students at several middle and high schools across the district every week.

Check out The Oaklandside’s guide for what you need to know about OUSD’s student vaccine mandate.

The new Aug. 1 deadline is likely to move OUSD closer to the state of California’s timeline for requiring student vaccinations. The state mandate, announced in October by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would require all students to be vaccinated once the Food and Drug Administration approves the shot for children 12 and under. New state legislation proposed on Monday would increase the scope of that mandate.

“Hopefully this is an easy move for us to move back into alignment with the state and make sure that we are actually protecting our students, especially our Black and brown students, who are going to be most impacted by this,” said Hutchinson, who introduced the amendment with Director Gonzales. 

About 72% of OUSD students 12 and older have at least one shot, and 28%, or about 4,300, are unvaccinated. Of those, about 2,800 don’t have an exemption on file and would be at risk of having to unenroll from in-person school. 

The student vaccine requirement was first approved by the school board in September, but without specifying the date by which students would need to be vaccinated or what the consequences would be for the students who remained unvaccinated. In October, the board set a deadline of Jan. 1, 2022, and decided that unvaccinated students would not be able to continue learning in person, and would have to enroll in independent study.

District 5 Director Hutchinson and District 6 Director Gonzales have opposed the student vaccine mandates over concerns about who would be excluded from school and the legal ramifications of implementing a mandate before the state does. 

Black students, who comprise about 22% of OUSD students, account for 40% of those who are unvaccinated, according to the district’s student vaccine dashboard. Pacific Islander, Native American, and Black students have the lowest vaccination rates among racial groups in OUSD, each ranging from 42% to 49% unvaccinated. 

While student vaccination rates are at 65% or higher in some parts of the city, in Districts 3 and 7, which include West Oakland and deep East Oakland, around 50% of students are unvaccinated. 

The student vaccine requirement also applies to charter schools in Oakland that use OUSD property or have students on an Oakland Athletic League team. Students are eligible for personal belief or religious exemptions, both of which must be signed by a doctor. 

“My goal with the vaccine mandate was never to push anybody out of school. I wanted to encourage more families to get vaccinated, and push the state to take a stronger stance,” said District 1 Director Davis, who first introduced the resolution requiring students to be vaccinated in September. “I do believe that Oakland adopting this mandate on the early side helped to get the state to take a stronger stance.”

Oakland is the latest school district to push back its enforcement deadline. Last month, Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest district in the state, delayed enforcement of its student vaccine mandate until the fall for similar reasons. While 87% of LAUSD students have been vaccinated or exempted, about 28,000 students were still unvaccinated at the time the deadline was extended, the Los Angeles Times reported. West Contra Costa Unified School District also pushed back its deadline from Jan. 3 to Feb. 18, over concerns that the district’s independent study program wouldn’t be able to handle thousands of new students. OUSD’s independent study program similarly struggled to accommodate an increase in students last semester. 

“I’m proud of the fact that we got our rates up to 70% now, which I think is very credible,” said Director and Board President Yee. “I think it goes without saying that we all plead for our students and our families to get vaccinated. I believe that’s the first line of defense for all of us.”

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.