L.A. schools chief seeks delay of student COVID vaccine mandate

The Los Angeles Unified School District should delay its requirement that students be vaccinated against COVID-19 until next year, its superintendent recommended Thursday, given the system’s already high vaccination rates among students 12 and older as well as low transmission rates in schools.

Supt. Alberto M. Carvalho said that, after consulting with experts, he will ask the district’s board to hold off on enforcing the mandate until July 1, 2023, at the earliest. Doing so would align California’s largest school district with the expected timeline of a statewide student vaccination requirement.

“The ability of our system to pivot shows that we are a science-based school district and the health and safety protocols we adopt are influenced by the expert advice of our medical partners and public health officials,” Carvalho said in a statement. “We know that students do best when learning in the classroom with their peers. Due to the high vaccination rates among students 12 and older, low transmission rates in our schools and our nation-leading safety measures, we have preserved in-person learning in the safest possible environment.”

Carvalho said the school board is set to discuss the recommendation and vote on it on May 10. The district’s employee vaccine mandate remains in place.

L.A. Unified was the first of the nation’s large school systems to institute a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for students. However, the district opted in December to delay enforcing the rule until this fall — citing both an already high rate of compliance and the desire to prevent potentially massive disruptions for students.

The vaccination mandate landscape shifted further earlier this month, when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California would not move ahead with its planned statewide requirement for schoolchildren to be immunized for COVID-19 before the 2022-23 academic year. The California Department of Public Health has said the timeline will be pushed back to at least July 1, 2023.

The state’s timeline shift threw the school district’s mandate into question, at least one school board member expressed interest in aligning with the state’s new timeline. At the time, board member Nick Melvoin called the state’s postponement a sign of good policymaking as districts attempt to navigate “the largest educational disruption in a century without a playbook.”

L.A. Unified medical director Dr. Smita Malhotra said the district has demonstrated low transmission rates with few outbreaks, and conditions have improved overall.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, not only do we have the existence of therapeutics to deal with COVID-19, but scientists also have a greater understanding of this virus,” Maholtra said in a statement.

Thursday’s announcement came a day after the L.A. County Department of Public Health released data showing that coronavirus cases among students and staff in the county’s schools have doubled during April — a trend officials say should reemphasize the importance of taking precautions, even as the overall number of campus-documented infections remains low.

The recent rise comes after many schools resumed instruction following spring break, a development officials and experts had said was likely, given travel and gatherings during the vacation period and the rapid proliferation of the highly infectious BA.2 Omicron subvariant.

For the school week prior to spring break — April 4-8 — 844 students and staff tested positive for the coronavirus countywide, according to data from the health department. But over the week that classes resumed, April 18-22, there were 1,842 positive test results.

However, case numbers of this magnitude represent a relative drop in the bucket for a county of L.A.’s size. And many cases may have been discovered not necessarily because a student or staffer fell ill, but because Los Angeles Unified — the nation’s second largest school district in terms of enrollment — requires all pupils and personnel participating in in-person instruction to undergo weekly testing.

Countywide, 529,000 tests were administered for the week ending April 22, which adds up to a test positivity rate of 0.35%, health figures show. About 450,000 tests were given during the week ending April 8, resulting in a weekly test positivity rate of 0.19%.

“While test positivity at schools remains very low, an increase in positive cases serves as a reminder that students and staff should continue to use common-sense safety measures,” the county public health department said in a statement.

In the first week of classroom instruction after spring break, there were 13 outbreaks at schools in L.A. County, with six of them in elementary schools, one in a middle school, two in high schools and four associated with youth sports.

That’s up from 11 outbreaks the week before spring break. Of those, seven were in elementary schools, one was in a middle school and three were in high schools.

“As individuals return from spring break and celebrating spring holidays, the highly infectious BA.2 subvariant is contributing to case and outbreak increases across the county,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement.

One factor in the higher number of coronavirus cases in elementary schools is the lower vaccination rates among students in those grades.

Only 32% of children ages 5 to 11 have completed their primary vaccination series in L.A. County, compared to 78% of adolescents age 12 to 17, health data show.

COVID-19 vaccines are still unavailable for the youngest children. However, Moderna on Thursday submitted an application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to expand eligibility to those younger than 6.

Among people of all ages, L.A. County is averaging about 1,700 new coronavirus cases a day, or about 120 cases a week for every 100,000 residents. A rate of 100 or more is considered high — the worst level in a four-tier scale defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

L.A. County entered the high transmission tier on Saturday, its first time reaching that level since early March.

Coronavirus-positive hospitalizations, however, have remained roughly at their lowest level on record during the pandemic.

It’s unclear whether hospitalizations will stay relatively steady and low — given the immunity provided by vaccinations and naturally by people who have survived a recent infection — or if they will rise to more concerning levels.

Scientists have said they would not be surprised if cases increase further in the late summer or early fall, when school resumes following summer break; or in the late fall and early winter, as has happened each of the past two years.

Officials still urge those who have survived a coronavirus infection to get up to date on vaccinations and boosters, noting that natural immunity wanes over time and isn’t necessarily protective against a future variant.

“People with risk factors … are at increased risk for severe disease from reinfection,” CDC scientist Dr. Kristie Clarke said at a briefing Tuesday. “We encourage people to stay up to date completely on their vaccination, regardless of their history of infection.”

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