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Two large Bay Area school districts to vote on mandatory COVID vaccinations for eligible students

The school boards for two of the Bay Area’s largest public school districts — Oakland and West Contra Costa Unified — plan to vote next week on whether to require mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for eligible students 12 and older.

These districts would become the first in Northern California to require vaccinations if mandates are approved. Los Angeles and Culver City school districts have recently mandated shots against COVID-19 for staff and students.

Board members will vote on proposals — Tuesday in West Contra Costa and Wednesday in Oakland — as districts up and down California struggle to keep students and teachers safe during the pandemic. Roughly 50,000 students are enrolled in Oakland Unified while West Contra Costa Unified serves more than 28,000 students in the cities of Richmond, El Cerrito, Hercules, Pinole and San Pablo, as well as several unincorporated areas.

In West Contra Costa Unified, the proposal comes after scores of coronavirus cases forced officials to temporarily close 18 classes during the first five weeks of school. Sponsored by trustees Demetrio Gonzalez-Hoy and Otheree Christian, the measure would require staff to get their first dose by Oct. 3 and their second by Oct. 31, or be placed on unpaid leave until they do so. Students would have until Nov. 21 to get their first shots, and until Dec. 19 for the second.

Under the proposed rule, students who turn 12 would have 30 days after their birthdays to get their first shot.

“Vaccination is the best mitigation against COVID,” Gonzalez-Hoy told The Chronicle on Wednesday. “Because we’ve had so many cases, and we’ve had to close so many classrooms, I think this is going to be something that is going to help us long term.”

In Oakland, school board member Benjamin “Sam” Davis introduced a vaccine mandate proposal only for students after the district dealt with a wave of infections at the start of the school year. Forty percent of the infections involved middle and high schools in August, he said at the last board meeting on Sept. 8.

Braden DeWitt adjusts the smart air purifier inside his classroom at McClymonds High School in Oakland. The district may require students and staff to be vaccinated.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Grace Gulli, a senior at Oakland Technical High School, told The Chronicle she applauds the idea. When vaccines first became available, she and other students at the school’s race, policy and law academy had a robust discussion over Zoom in which some expressed skepticism, she said. But now, Gulli argued, “enough time has passed to where people can feel comfortable having the vaccine.”

However, Oakland school board president Shanthi Gonzales remained wary, and said she would likely abstain from voting on the measure.

“It’s coming from the right place,” Gonzales said of the proposal, but added that she mandates concerns about “the message it could send,” especially to families of color who may be more dubious of the vaccine.

California will require public school staff to either be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing beginning next month but there is no similar statewide rule regarding students.

The vaccine proposals follow a decision by the school board for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which voted last week to institute a vaccine mandate as infections soared throughout the country. Culver City passed its own directive in August, intriguing West Contra Costa Unified Superintendent Kenneth “Chris” Hurst, who said at a recent school board meeting that his staff called officials in Culver City to ask about the experience.

Many schools faced disruptions as the delta variant swept in, hitting campuses, sports teams and day care programs and sending students into quarantine. The numbers are particularly stark in West Contra Costa, which logged 155 student cases and 32 staff cases on its public dashboard.

Marissa Glidden, president of the teachers union, said she suspects the true case count is higher. Her union began tracking each letter that principals sent out to announce new cases, and found that 234 students and staff had been infected since the beginning of the school year.

The high infection rates create stress for students and teachers who have already lost 14 months of in-person learning, and who now have to deal with the start-stop process of reopening. Teachers who rejoiced at the prospect of a somewhat normal year are also “exhausted,” said Glidden, whose union, United Teachers of Richmond, represents all educators and certified staff in the district.

Since many districts aren’t able to sustain a hybrid online and in-person school model, students in quarantine are simply given an independent study packet, which is onerous for teachers, Glidden said, and puts students at a disadvantage. She and other union officials support the vaccine mandate: Last Wednesday, the union’s executive board voted overwhelmingly in favor of pursuing it.

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