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Scores of California Students Still Lack Proof of Vaccination as School Mandate Deadlines Approach

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A child wearing a green mask and blue shirt receives a needle in her arm from an adult wearing surgical gloves and a syringe.
A student receives a dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine at a school vaccine launch event in Los Angeles on Nov. 5, 2021. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

A handful of large California school districts are facing a potential crisis in the coming weeks: Thousands of their students 12 years and older have yet to provide proof of vaccination, despite looming deadlines.

Those districts include West Contra Costa Unified (WCCUSD), as well those in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Oakland. As of last Wednesday, for instance, only 33% of WCCUSD's students age 12 and older had verified that they had received both doses of the vaccine, which will be required to continue in-person education there beginning Jan. 3.

That means weeks ahead of the district’s mandate deadline, the status of about 8,000 students remains unknown. Students who aren’t fully vaccinated by then will either have to enroll in the district’s independent study program or leave the district altogether.

It’s likely that many families simply haven’t gotten around to submitting their children’s vaccination status. The state touts that more than 70% of children age 12-17 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, but parents must still submit their children’s proof of vaccination to districts with mandates to continue in-person instruction.

But the sheer number of people holding out so close to the deadline is stoking anxiety among officials in districts like WCCUSD, who fear that their short-staffed virtual education alternatives will be quickly overwhelmed by an onslaught of unvaccinated students.

“The reality is that we have a virtual academy that doesn’t have enough teachers,” WCCUSD's Chief Academic Officer LaResha Martin told EdSource. Superintendent Kenneth “Chris” Hurst, at a school board meeting last Wednesday, said he no longer believes the Jan. 3 deadline for the vaccine mandate is tenable, and intends to propose pushing the date back, possibly to July 2022 to align with the state’s student vaccine mandate.

In the meantime, the district is boosting its outreach efforts and hosting vaccine clinics. Martin laid out some options for dealing with the potential flood of independent study students: The district will continue trying to quickly hire teachers, and could propose transferring unvaccinated teachers to the virtual academy — although those teachers are not required to move to different schools. Currently, 85% of school staff have provided proof of vaccination, according to the district.

Similar situations are playing out in other districts throughout California.

In Los Angeles Unified — which enrolls about one-fifth of California’s students — some 34,000 students have not yet complied with the district’s vaccine mandate, The Los Angeles Times reported last week. That's more than twice as many students as are currently enrolled in the district's independent study program.

While noting that more than 86% of its eligible students have been vaccinated, the district on Friday announced a proposal to allow unvaccinated students to continue in-person instruction until the 2022 fall semester, at which point they would have to enroll in independent study if still unvaccinated. That proposal will go before the school board on Dec. 14.

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In Sacramento City Unified, only a quarter of middle and high school students turned in proof that they had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by the district's Nov. 30 deadline. That means more than 14,000 students 12 and older will have to potentially enroll in independent study.

And in Oakland Unified, about 40% of students 12 and older — some 6,000 students — have not yet submitted proof of vaccination, Oaklandside reported earlier this month, prompting the school board last week to push back the district’s deadline from Jan. 1 to Jan. 31. About 1,000 of those students have qualified for either a medical or religious exemption, district officials said — an exemption not offered by the West Contra Costa or LA districts.

Martin, WCCUSD's chief academic officer, said the district has been scrambling since the start of the semester to hire enough teachers to meet the demand for its virtual academy. Even before the pandemic, however, the state and county faced a district-wide school staffing shortage, which only got worse over the last year, after many teachers and other employees left the profession.

“We don’t have enough teachers. That’s just the bottom line,” Martin said.

The district is actively hiring teachers for its virtual academy. But among the hundreds of applicants who have responded to the district’s job listings, Martin said, only a handful are actually qualified.

She said the academy, whose existence preceded the pandemic, was designed as a year-round option for the handful of families in the district who wanted a remote learning alternative for their children. It was not, however, designed to be a state-required independent study option for the entire district.

Teachers and school staff “are doing a whole reset, adding new students to classes, trying to reorganize their school,” Martin said. “It’s a constant revolving door, and that’s not what it was originally designed for. I would hope people are understanding.”

This story was originally published by EdSource.

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