Largest California school district ends COVID vaccine mandate for staff

The mandate was hit by lawsuits, but Sup. Carvalho says the decision is due to science and conditions

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted 6 to 1 to repeal its two-year-old COVID-19 vaccine mandate for staff, claiming that it is no longer necessary to ensure safe in-person learning.

Board member George McKenna voted no, stating 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 resulted in the dismissal of over 600 employees who refused the vaccine and did not qualify for medical or religious exemptions.

Employees who were placed on unpaid leave for refusing to follow the mandate may be invited to return under the terms of their leaves. Staff who have left the district or been reassigned to a virtual classroom may apply for an in-person position.

Many praised the mandate’s bold action to protect students and staff from the spread of the virus at the time, and 97% of employees received vaccines by the deadline.

“I don’t regret what we did for a single second, not 30 seconds, not even a speck,” said Board President Jackie Goldberg at Tuesday’s meeting. “The highest death rates in the country were in states where there were no vaccine requirements.”

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

Several former employees and activist groups filed lawsuits against the district, requesting that the vaccine requirement be lifted.

The resolution to rescind the measure by the LAUSD board does not mention any legal action, but rather the winding down of city, state, and federal emergency health declarations, as well as COVID-19’s transition to an endemic disease that is here to stay but is 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 has reached endemic status.” It has reached the level of stability and predictability associated with other viruses such as RSV and the flu.”

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

Nonetheless, parties involved in legal battles with the district see the board’s decision as a significant victory.

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

“They fired all of these people who have dedicated their lives, their careers to helping educate children,” she continued. “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 claim they were wrongfully terminated after requesting religious exemptions from the mandate. Former employees requested compensatory damages and the repeal of the mandate in their complaint.

Francis Calderon, a former Willow Elementary School early learning teacher who refused the vaccine, expressed delight that the board was considering repealing the mandate.

Calderon was reassigned to an online classroom in fall 2021 and then fired at the end of the academic year after 15 years with LAUSD.

“It was a very horrible experience,” she said. “It was hard on me and for my family, the gap in my income went on for several months.”

Calderon was among the current and former employees who protested outside LAUSD’s district headquarters in April 2022, demanding that they be allowed back into the classroom. They were reacting to Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s plan to fill teacher vacancies by assigning 400 employees, some of whom did not have teaching credentials, to classrooms.

Calderon now works in another school district and is unsure whether she wants her former position back.

“I really feel like I was discriminated against not just by the district, but also by colleagues who were very mean to us (unvaccinated employees),” said Calderon. “I don’t feel like I’m excited like ‘oh my god we can go back,’ because we’ve been through a lot.”

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