Students wearing masks poured out of James Lick High School in San Jose as classes ended for the day. Some stopped to chat with friends and others gathered around a student playing guitar. The mood was light-hearted and social. But not all of the students were vaccinated against COVID-19.
That may change with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new vaccine mandate. Unless exempt for religious or bona fide personal reasons, unvaccinated public and private school students eligible to get the COVID shot will not be permitted to attend school in-person.
The requirement goes into effect on Jan. or July 1, 2022, after the Food and Drug Administration fully approves vaccinations for different cohorts, starting with ages 12 and above in grades 7 to 12. If unvaccinated at that point, students could take part in an independent home studies program to learn at their own pace, using the school’s curriculum and teacher check-ins.
Some students like Brizeizy Figueroa might fall into that group. Figueroa said her parents aren’t in favor of the vaccine—a friend sitting next to her on a school bench is in a similar situation.
“I feel like it should be your choice,” Figueroa said.
James Lick student Jessica Nguyen sees it differently. “I think they should get vaccinated because it helps protect us all from the coronavirus,” she said.
Brandon Herrera, another student at James Lick High School, agrees. “It helps the world if everyone gets vaccinated, so there’s no more COVID and people stop dying,” he said.
Jesse Springer, a special education teacher at William Sheppard Middle School in Alum Rock Union School District, said being vaccinated is beneficial for children with visual and auditory difficulties. These students need to be in the classroom as opposed to independent study, Springer said.
As of Tuesday, there have been 142,200 cases of COVID-19 in Santa Clara County and 1,807 deaths, according to Santa Clara County Public Health. About 88.9% of residents 12 and above have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 84.1% are fully vaccinated.
The new guidelines will apply to teachers and other school employees. All will be required to be either vaccinated or tested weekly as of August 2022 now that the FDA fully approved the Pfizer vaccine for ages 16 and older. Emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine was granted for ages 12 through 15. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccines are authorized only for ages 18 and older, but the companies are expected to apply for similar authorization once trials are completed.
Looking for clarity
James Lick parent Luis Marcelino wants teachers and students vaccinated.
“We gotta get control of this situation so we can go back to the way things were before the epidemic,” he said.
Some education leaders worried that allowing unvaccinated students to use the independent studies program might overwhelm some school districts.
“Districts once again will have to coordinate an alternative program for a number of students it historically wasn’t built for,” Glenn Vander Zee, superintendent for East Side Union High School District, told San José Spotlight.
East San Jose, where James Lick is located, has been hit especially hard by COVID-19 infections, ranking the highest for cases in the county. County data shows that Latinx residents account for nearly half of all COVID-19 cases and 31% of the deaths countywide despite comprising just a quarter of the population. Black people comprise 2.4% of the cases despite only making up 1.9% of the population.
Hilaria Bauer, superintendent of Alum Rock Union School District in East San Jose, favors Newsom’s announcement. However, she emphasized the need for clear messaging.
“I understand the health reasons, this can be easily determined by a physician. I also understand religious reasons that can also be easily confirmed by the family’s faith,” Bauer said. “But I am not clear how personal belief will be considered and followed. These are the kind of mandates that confuse people and challenge our systems.”
Parent Stephanie Ladisky said the personal exemption shouldn’t cover political leanings.
“Your personal political opinion should not be factored into whether or not you get the vaccine,” she said. “If you live in a society where your actions can hurt other people, especially people who are vulnerable and can’t get the vaccine, you need to be responsible. Everybody banded together to get rid of polio. That’s what this should be, too.”
Although Ladisky is concerned about unvaccinated students sitting in close proximity to others in the classroom, she doesn’t think it’s fair to make them miss out on in-person learning. Instead, she suggested unvaccinated students be put in cohorts together.
Her son Connor, a Santa Teresa High School student, said he’d feel more comfortable knowing all students and teachers are vaccinated.
“Unless you can’t take the vaccine for medical reasons, you really have no excuse,” he said. “It’s not fair to everyone else, and those with underlying conditions like cancer that make them immunocompromised. It’s not fair to them that you’re harboring something that can basically shut them down. Get the vaccine.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]