Close to 80% of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District are on track to comply with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, school district officials announced Monday, raising concerns about the potential for thousands to be displaced from in-person classes for the start of the spring semester on Jan. 10.
The figure represents substantial progress — and officials hope many more students have been vaccinated, but simply have not yet uploaded documentation to the school district. About 225,000 students ages 12 and older fall under the mandate, half of the district’s enrollment. Based on the percentage, about 44,000 students have not met the deadline — either by getting at least one shot, obtaining a medical exemption or receiving a rare extension.
The experience of L.A. Unified, the second-largest school district in the nation and the first large system to approve such a requirement, represents an early test of compliance levels with student vaccine mandates. The vast majority of families appear on track, but the district faces logistical problems and difficult decisions if that number does not rise quickly.
Sunday was the district’s announced deadline for students to get a first shot, although they could get a first dose as late as the first week in December and still have enough time to get a second shot and achieve maximum immunity by the beginning of the next term.
“Los Angeles Unified’s first- and second-dose deadlines for eligible students 12 and older are designed to ensure students receive the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccination before the holiday season,” district spokesperson Shannon Haber said.
Students are on vacation this week for an extended Thanksgiving break.
“As families upload their vaccination records to our Daily Pass system, we expect the number of vaccinated students to increase once students return to campus on Nov. 29 and as we approach the Dec. 19 second-dose deadline,” Haber said.
Families that don’t comply will have to enroll their children outside of L.A. Unified or transfer them to City of Angels, an independent study program that was adapted this year to include some live online instruction. City of Angels has been beset by staffing shortages and instability. Parents of students with special needs have been particularly upset at the limitations of the program — and many students waited weeks before being able to receive any meaningful instruction.
Having earlier deadlines gives district officials more time to prepare for what could happen. About 16,000 students are currently enrolled in City of Angels. The possible influx of many thousands more would have the potential to overwhelm the program.
Because there was no immediate penalty attached to the Sunday deadline, it’s possible that some parents were not taking it seriously, especially given that the absolute deadline remains seven weeks out, said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine and an infectious-disease specialist at UC San Francisco.
“There’s the soft deadline and there’s the real deadline, and I don’t feel people are looking at this as the real deadline,” Chin-Hong said.
He noted that there was a last-minute rush at L.A. Unified when the employee mandate took effect.
“If you look at the human behavior, it was the week before — the day before — the ultimate deadline that people came out of the woodwork,” he said. “I’m trying to be optimistic.”
Ultimately, about 97% of district employees either got vaccinated or successfully applied for an exemption. About 600 employees were allowed to transfer to City of Angels, where there is no in-person contact with students or other workers. But not everyone or every type of job could be accommodated that way.
Those job shifts resulted in a mid-year disruption for students both at City of Angels and at the campuses the transferred teachers left behind. Some districts with employee vaccine mandates have backed off from strict enforcement, including the nation’s third-largest school system, in Chicago.
The handful of districts nationally with student mandates include California’s two largest, L.A. and San Diego Unified. The details and timing of the mandates differ by district. San Diego’s applies to those 16 and older — for whom there is a vaccine with full authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Other school systems allow an exemption for sincerely held religious beliefs, which L.A. Unified permits for employees but not for students.
In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a pending state mandate, but it would not take effect before July at the earliest and currently includes exemptions for personal beliefs.
Students 18 and older can receive the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine — an option that would take only two weeks to achieve maximum immunity. For those 12 to 17, the only current option is the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, which requires three weeks between doses and then a two-week waiting period to achieve maximum immunity.
“LAUSD is one of the nation’s leaders in terms of applying public health measures including: regular testing; mask use, and now vaccination of eligible students,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, professor of epidemiology and community health sciences at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “Such measures help to ensure that our children are learning in an environment that is as safe from COVID-19 transmission as possible.”
He saw the 80% figure as “encouraging,” but echoed Chin-Hong in adding: “We need to continue to outreach and educate students and parents as to the importance of everyone eligible for vaccination to actually get vaccinated.”
The outreach includes $5 million worth of prizes as well as school-based and pop-up vaccine clinics throughout the school system.
Both L.A. Unified and San Diego Unified face lawsuits over their vaccine requirement. Some parents said they are adamant about not complying. They’ve taken part in protests and also called in to L.A. Unified school board meetings — in-person public speakers have yet to return since the start of the pandemic.
“Soon you’re going to lose thousands of students,” said a parent who called in. “Parents are gathering up. … We will not comply.”