By at least one important measure, the Los Angeles school district’s plan to require vaccinations for students 12 and older has been a success: Three months after the mandate was announced, almost 90 percent of those students had complied.
Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Unified School District — the first major district in the United States to call for such a mandate — decided this week to slow things down. Board members voted 6-1 not to enforce the vaccine deadline, originally scheduled for Jan. 10, until fall 2022.
That’s because the district did not know what to do with the tens of thousands of students who were still unvaccinated.
The delay illustrated the challenges that schools across the country could face if they mandate vaccinations for children: a dearth of good alternatives for students who don’t comply, and the resulting ripple effects that could strain districts’ resources, hurting even those students who do get the shot.
The decision in Los Angeles came at what seemed like an inopportune time: The Omicron coronavirus variant is surging in regions of the United States, which means that schools will most likely need to handle yet another wave of the pandemic. And vaccines — especially booster shots — still appear to offer protection against severe illness.
“Mandates are valuable, they are useful, and we know that they increase vaccination rates,” said Shira Shafir, an associate professor of epidemiology with the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But districts simultaneously need to be prepared for the possibility that even though they work, they will not work for 100 percent of all people, necessarily.”
Los Angeles announced its mandate in September, but officials in other major cities like Atlanta, Chicago and New York have taken a more cautious approach with schools, opting instead to wait for full F.D.A. approval of vaccines for children or citing concerns that mandates might push students out of class.
Joe and Charlene Mardesic, whose 12-year-old daughter attends middle school in Los Angeles, said they were prepared to pull her out if the mandate had taken effect next month. The delay, Mr. Mardesic said, was “excellent news.”
“We wanted to find out more about the vaccine, and let it be tested more stringently, instead of it being on an emergency use authorization,” he added. “We wanted to wait until the F.D.A. fully approves it before we said, ‘OK, now our daughter can be vaccinated.’”
The Food and Drug Administration has authorized the Pfizer vaccine for use in children between the ages of 5 and 15, and it is fully approved for people 16 and older.
The Los Angeles school district said the mandate has already had a positive effect, even without enforcement. Megan K. Reilly, the interim superintendent, said in a statement last week that 87 percent of students between the ages of 12 and 18 had complied with the mandate. (Some of those may have been exempted rather than vaccinated, and some families whose children are vaccinated had not been counted because they had yet to upload proof of vaccination.)
“This is a major milestone,” Ms. Reilly said, “and there’s still more time to get vaccinated!”
Dr. Shafir agreed that the compliance rate was impressive and said it was important to note that the decision to delay was made for logistical and infrastructural reasons. “It is not being made for public health reasons,” she said. “Nothing has changed about the vaccine or about the need for the vaccine.”
What did change is that officials realized that the students who remained unvaccinated — amounting to about 30,000 — threatened to overwhelm the district’s resources.
This summer, California lawmakers promoted independent study programs as an option for children who did not want to return to class during the pandemic. In Los Angeles, that led to a surge of interest in City of Angels, a program that had long offered independent learning plans, typically to accommodate students with odd schedules because of, say, health issues or acting jobs.
Enrollment there has swollen to 16,000, from around 1,300 before the pandemic. And if a mandate were enforced next month, more teachers would have been diverted to help run the independent study program, which would in turn hurt the students who stayed in traditional schools, according to Jackie Goldberg, a school board member who voted to delay enforcing the mandate.
“It’s a mess,” Ms. Goldberg said. “It was never intended to be a school replacement. It was intended to be temporary independent study.”
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The school district did not immediately answer questions about the challenges facing City of Angels, and its principal did not respond to a request for comment.
“We didn’t remove the mandate, and I want to be very clear about that,” Ms. Goldberg added. “We are delaying enforcement, because to enforce it would actually disadvantage the people who complied.”
One school board member, George McKenna, voted against the change and said at the Tuesday meeting that without the mandate, even vaccinated students would be more at risk of infection in the classroom. “We’re trying to protect the children under our care,” he said, “and we do have the authority to do that.”
“If we delay the effective date of the requirement, it dilutes the intent,” he added.
Suellen Hopfer, an assistant professor of public health and pediatrics with the Center for Virus Research at the University of California, Irvine, surveyed parents of adolescents and found that some cited mandates as their primary motivation for vaccinating their children.
“Public health and school officials need to send a strong, unified message on the importance and safety of vaccinating,” she said, adding that they should emphasize the importance of vaccination now, not later — especially given the unpredictability of variants.
Ahead of their vote to delay enforcement, school board members stressed that unvaccinated students will have to be tested regularly, and that the district would keep up its outreach efforts to help as many students as possible meet the new deadline.
But Los Angeles is a big district — the nation’s second most populous, with more than 600,000 students — and even if the vaccination rate for students 12 and older exceeded 95 percent, thousands would still be unvaccinated.
A number of things could change before the next school year begins. Full F.D.A. approval for children’s vaccinations, for instance, would prompt the state to impose its own mandate, adding the coronavirus to the list of diseases that students must be vaccinated against, like measles and mumps. (That is scheduled for July, according to the governor’s office.) And Ms. Goldberg said that she hoped California would change a law that she said limits students’ options for remote learning and ultimately pushes too many into independent study programs that cannot accommodate them.
But for now, it still remains unclear where unvaccinated students will go once the mandate is enforced.
Mike Ives contributed reporting.