Oakland Unified to Require Coronavirus Vaccine for Students 12 and Up

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Students wearing masks and backpacks walk through a chain-link fence.
Students enter Castlemont High School in Oakland, California, on Feb. 3, 2021, for football practice.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Oakland Board of Education voted late Wednesday to require district students 12 and older to be vaccinated against the coronavirus as a prerequisite for attending in-person school.

The move makes Oakland Unified the first school district in Northern California to adopt a student vaccine requirement. It follows similar mandates imposed earlier this month by Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district, and the smaller Southern California district of Culver City.

Several other school boards in the Bay Area are considering similar measures, including West Contra Costa County Unified and Berkeley Unified, as schools try to navigate in-person instruction amid ongoing concerns over the highly contagious delta variant.

The plan in Oakland, which serves about 50,000 students, will require all students age 12 and older to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they are granted medical or “personal belief” exemptions.

The resolution does not specify a timeline or say how students’ vaccination status will be tracked. It requires OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell to “develop recommendations for enforcement of this vaccine requirement” and report them to the board by October.

Sam Davis, the school board vice president who introduced the vaccine resolution, cited district data showing that 40% of the positive cases have involved students in middle and high schools, who are old enough to be vaccinated.

"We know that if more students were vaccinated, those numbers would go down really sharply," he said. "That's what's creating the urgency around this."

There is no data on how many students are already vaccinated in Oakland Unified, but in the city of Oakland, 54% of 12- to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, and 71% have received at least one dose, according to data cited in the school board’s proposal.

Davis says the district’s efforts to reach more high school students, including mobile vaccine clinics and free donuts, simply aren’t getting enough traction.

He says he sees the resolution as a starting point. "It just feels like this is an urgent conversation that we need to have,” he said. "And I know it's a hard conversation, but I don't want to shy away from it."

Vocal critics of the vaccine mandate — including the school board president, Shanthi Gonzales — say the plan could easily backfire, exposing the district to major litigation and driving a significant number of students out of the classroom.

"It will push more students to distance learning, where we don’t have space for more students," she said in a statement. "Or worse, to charters or other districts."

School board member Mike Hutchinson, who also opposes the new requirement, says any such mandate should come from the state.

"We're talking about potentially thousands of students being told that you can't attend school until you get this vaccination," said Hutchinson. "That makes me nervous that some families will respond by not attending school."

Some education officials also have questioned the legality of mandating the coronavirus vaccine for students under 16 while it's still under emergency use authorization. Currently, only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been granted full FDA authorization, and only for those 16 and older.

California currently requires public school staff to either be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing starting Oct. 15, but there is no similar statewide rule regarding students.

Asked at a Thursday media briefing if the state is considering requiring eligible schoolchildren to be vaccinated to attend in-person classes, Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of health and human services, said there is “no definitive action or decision” right now. But he left open the possibility of such a mandate, noting that students have long been required to receive vaccinations against other viruses — including polio, hepatitis B, measles and diphtheria — to attend school in person.

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"We’re watching the experience in Los Angeles, understanding what it means for students and families alike, staff as well, and watching as other counties consider the same,” he said. “So that conversation is happening."

California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has expressed support for mandatory student vaccination, as has Dr. Anthony Fauci. A poll by the Associated Press found that 6 out of 10 Americans support requiring vaccines for eligible students.

Still, Oakland's new requirement is likely to face significant backlash among students and families who are already on the fence about the vaccine.

McClymonds High School student L’Shawna Fletcher, 14, says she thinks a vaccine mandate will keep more students out of class.

"Everybody’s just gonna choose to go home instead of getting the vaccine," she said. "My mom don’t even want me with the vaccine. I would have to do distance learning."

For parent advocate Lakisha Young, the resolution also raises equity concerns. "Looking at the data, our families would probably have the most challenges meeting the requirement," said Young, who runs The Oakland REACH, an organization that helps support the needs of many of the district’s families.

California's Black, Latino, and lower-income residents are significantly less likely to be vaccinated than white residents, data shows.

“If I was a board member and I knew these communities were less likely to be vaccinated, I’d be going to them to say, ‘How does this impact you?'" she said. "Why not make sure that you understand and hear from them?"

This post includes additional reporting from the Associated Press.