The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District will consider a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students with a formal vote to be scheduled sometime in the second week of October.
The decision followed intense public debate over the issue during a Thursday, Sept. 23, school board meeting that included personal threats to Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati, numerous references to various government codes and analogies to several points in history where civil liberties have been at stake.
The debate took place during a discussion item and was not a formal vote to implement a vaccine. Instead, the SMMUSD school board asked for a special meeting dedicated to the topic that would include a complete analysis of the issue. The decision to agendize a formal vote was supported by a vote of 6-1, with Malibu’s representative Craig Foster as the lone opponent.
Several board members agreed that Governor Gavin Newsom and the State of California need to mandate the vaccine; currently, the state’s leadership has left such mandates up to individual school boards.
“I think the state should pass the vaccine law for COVID-19,” Board Member Jennifer Smith said. “I have an issue in the sense that it seems to be a precedent that there are different vaccine statuses in different districts in the state of California.”
The board majority also said they feel the need to protect the entire community with the mandate and keep schools open. They pointed to other immunizations being required for students to attend school and said people must be vaccinated before new variants arise that jeopardize the effectiveness of the current vaccines.
“Vaccines, masking and testing will allow kids in classrooms, instead of wasting time outside of classrooms quarantining [or] being sick,” School Board President Jon Kean said.
Foster, the lone opponent to a vaccine mandate, said he felt it should not be the school board’s responsibility to mandate a permanent health decision to anyone. He said he personally supported vaccines but warned of government overreach in requiring them for students.
“And it just happens over and over and over again,” Foster said. “Americans are willing to give up precious freedoms to try and prevent the fear of the day. I personally want absolutely no part of forcing anybody else to put a needle in their arm.”
Much of the public comment was opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
“A vaccine is intended to prevent severe illness. So, because children don’t become severely ill with COVID, I think we have to hold this vaccine to a much higher bar,” parent Heather Alfano said. “The Pfizer study that recently came out with the ages five to 11 with the lower dose of the vaccine had only 2,200 students involved—or children involved—in the study, which is not a lot of data to go on.
“I really don’t think it’s OK to mandate a vaccine if we’re definitely still going to be collecting data for this first round,” Alfano continued. “It must be a choice that parents are allowed to make on their own. It cannot be something that comes from you. This is not a public health agency.”
The local discussion came as several districts elsewhere in the state have mandated or considered mandates.
Oakland Unified became the first school district in Northern California to adopt a vaccine requirement last Wednesday. That came after Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD), the state’s largest school district, and the smaller Southern California district of Culver City approved similar policies for their students earlier this month.
At LAUSD, students who can’t show proof of vaccination won’t be permitted to have in-person learning following the end of winter break on Jan. 11 unless they have a medical or other exemption.
New York City’s school system, the nation’s largest, has only mandated vaccinations for 20,000 student athletes in certain sports considered at high risk of spreading the virus, such as wrestling.
A version of this story first appeared in the Santa Monica Daily Press.