With schools back in session across the country, there’re 13,800 experiments underway in how to handle educating children in the midst of a pandemic—and that’s just counting the number of public school districts. What the 34,600 private schools in the nation are doing includes some pretty extreme extremes.
In headlines, it’s easy to find the places that are having problems. That includes Mississippi school districts with skyrocketing cases, thousands of kids either sick or in quarantine, and schools forced to close. Texas schools that are shut down as caseloads “left districts scrambling” to find alternatives to in-person instruction. Florida schools “drowning” in COVID-19 that has left them facing prolonged outages. The Nashville Tennessean now has a regular school closings page of the kind usually reserved for winter storms … except that this is schools closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks. And yes, among them is that school where doctors who simply talked to the school board about masks were followed into the parking lot and threatened.
Dealing with a disease as infections as the delta variant of COVID-19 is hard. The transmissibility is such that every step taken, whether it’s requiring that all students and staff wear masks or requiring older students to be vaccinated, can only lower the rate of transmission so much. Even states like Vermont, which has consistently had one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, is seeing some cases in schools and some students sent home. Of course, as VT Digger reports, the number of cases in Vermont schools is 81, and none of them have been forced to close. Compare that to this report from the Casper Star Tribune showing that the even smaller state of Wyoming has seen 7,358 students and 60 staff test positive in the first week of school.
What’s uncommon in the media are stories of school districts doing things well. But here’s a big one—as in the second-largest school district in the nation is about to have not just a mask mandate, but a vaccine mandate for students over 12.
The Los Angeles Unified School District cares for over 600,000 students across over 1,000 individual schools. It also happens to be situated in the area of California that, since the start of the pandemic, has often been the state’s hottest hot spot. Los Angeles County alone is responsible for over 1.4 million cases and over 25,000 deaths. That’s almost 40% of all the deaths in the state.
The rate of positive cases in Los Angeles and the number of cases per capita have often made the county seem like a slice out of one of the Southeastern states where COVID-19 has run rampant. This is in comparison to areas like San Francisco County, where there have been just 50,000 cases and fewer than 600 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Against that backdrop, Los Angeles Unified has a daunting task: how to put a massive number of children into school, in the middle of a pandemic, in a location that hasn’t exactly been the best at handling community spread, and do it as safely as possible.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, the district is handling this challenge by instituting some of the toughest COVID-19 rules in the country. That includes a mask mandate on every student, teacher, and visitor. It includes actually spending the money that was allocated under pandemic relief bills to improve ventilation and create spaces for safe instruction. It includes enforcing regular testing and quarantining students and staff exposed to known cases.
And, following a meeting scheduled for Thursday, it’s expected to include a mandatory vaccination for students over 12.
Against a backdrop of national protests over measures as simple as masks—and where there was an attempt to kidnap a school principal over enforcing a quarantine policy—mandatory vaccination seems notable. The district is already anticipating that it will have to fight its way through court should the vaccination requirement pass as expected.
However, there’s no reason that the vaccine should be controversial. California, just like Texas and Florida, already requires vaccination for at least seven diseases before students can attend public schools, and requires multiple doses and boosters for students entering elementary and secondary schools. Requiring COVID-19 vaccination should be nothing special—it’s just another required vaccine in an already substantial list.
And there are very good reasons for that requirement. Despite widespread talk of breakthrough infections, the truth is that the latest wave of COVID-19 is overwhelmingly a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” That includes those under 12 who can’t be vaccinated because the Food and Drug Administration is still awaiting data, expected this month, from vaccine manufacturers. In the meantime, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently reports that rates of hospitalization for students between 12 and 17 were 10 times lower when those students were fully vaccinated.
In Los Angeles United, the rate of student infections is less than 0.5%. Compare that to over 6% in many districts in the Southeast. But 0.5% of 600,000 is still 3,000 students. If mandatory vaccination can reduce the number of those kids who end up in the hospital by 90% … that’s definitely something worth doing.
On the one hand, what Los Angeles Unified is doing seems to be a demonstration of political bravery. It has stood up over and over to insist on what are regarded as very strict measures, even in the face of critical editorials and lawsuits. Board members have not succumbed to personal threats and rooms full of screaming protesters.
On the other hand, everything they’re doing is simply following the minimal guidelines recommended by the CDC and epidemiologists. This shouldn’t be something restricted to Unified. It should simply be universal.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.