Largest California school district ends COVID vaccine mandate for staff

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The Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted 6 to 1 on Tuesday to rescind its two-year-old COVID-19 vaccine mandate for staff, saying it is no longer needed to assure safe in-person learning.

Boardmember George McKenna cast the sole dissenting vote, saying he believes that science still supports the need for the COVID-19 vaccine in today’s environment.

The COVID mandate went into effect on Oct. 1, 2021 and over time led to the termination of more than 600 employees who refused the vaccine and did not qualify for medical or religious exemptions.

Staff who were placed on unpaid leave because they refused to follow the mandate may be invited to return under the conditions of their leaves. Staff who departed the district or were reassigned to a virtual classroom are eligible to apply for an in-person position.

At the time the mandate was enacted, many praised the bold action to protect students and staff from the spread of the virus, and some 97% of employees met the deadline for getting vaccines.

“I do not regret what we did for one moment, not 30 seconds, not one tiny bit” said Board President Jackie Goldberg during Tuesday’s meeting. “The highest death rates in the country were in states where there were no vaccine requirements.”

LAUSD Board President Jackie Goldberg speaks during a ceremony at BMO Stadium in Los Angeles on Monday, May 22, 2023, honoring LAUSD high school seniors who have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity who will be graduating. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
LAUSD Board President Jackie Goldberg speaks during a ceremony at BMO Stadium in Los Angeles on Monday, May 22, 2023, honoring LAUSD high school seniors who have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity who will be graduating. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG) 

But some staff and community members saw the mandate as an attack on people’s medical freedom and were outraged by the ultimatum that staff either get vaccinated or lose their jobs.

Several former employees and activist organizations filed lawsuits against the district seeking to repeal the vaccine requirement.

The LAUSD board’s resolution to rescind the measure does not refer to any legal action, and instead points to the winding down of city, state and federal emergency health declarations and to COVID-19’s transition to an endemic disease that is here to stay but no longer a pandemic.

“This was a necessary requirement and it was adopted so that schools could reopen safely based on information that was known then, verified then,” said LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “COVID-19 is now in an endemic phase. It has entered the state of stability and increased predictability that comes usually with other viruses such as RSV and the flu.”

“Today, I am recommending before this board the rescission of the LAUSD vaccination requirement,” he said. “It is a decision based on scientific knowledge and current conditions, nothing more, nothing less.”

Nevertheless, parties involved in legal battles against the district see the board’s decision as a big win.

“This is a huge victory,” said Leslie Manookian, founder of the Health Freedom Defense Fund, which alongside the California Educators for Medical Freedom, and six LAUSD employees filed a lawsuit against the district’s mandate in October 2021. The lawsuit is pending in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“They fired all of these people who have dedicated their lives, their careers to helping educate children,” she added. “Why do they care so little about the hundreds and hundreds of employees who have a different opinion about this shot than LAUSD’s management?”

In a separate lawsuit, more than 20 former school police officers allege that they were improperly terminated after filing for religious exemptions to reject the mandate. In the complaint, the former employees asked for compensatory damages, and to repeal the mandate.

Francis Calderon, a former early learning teacher at Willow Elementary School who refused the vaccine, said she was excited that the board was considering repealing the mandate.

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