LOS ANGELES — About 34,000 students have not yet complied with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate in the Los Angeles Unified School District — and there's no longer enough time for students who have not gotten their first shot to be fully vaccinated by the Jan. 10 start of the second semester, portending significant disruption to their education as they will be barred from campus.
The high number of students who will not be able to meet the full inoculation deadline is likely to force difficult decisions on leaders of second-largest U.S. school system, which has enacted among the strictest vaccine mandates in the nation. Students who are not fully vaccinated — or exempt — will be forced into the district's independent study program or will have to leave the Los Angeles public school system.
Shifting 34,000 students 12 and older into independent study would be challenging — especially as the district's independent study program, called City of Angels, has been beset by staffing shortages and confusion after it was inundated at the start of the school year with about 10,000 students, a number that grew to 16,000. The 34,000 total by itself would make up one of the 25 largest school systems in California.
There's no indication that L.A. Unified is backing down — with no leniency or extended deadlines under public discussion.
"Our schools have some of the strongest safety standards in the nation and we plan on keeping it that way," interim Supt. Megan Reilly said in a video broadcast during Tuesday's school board meeting. Despite the determined statement, the video message was mostly a soft-sell, with smiling students urging their peers to be vaccinated "like me," as they said, one after another.
The L.A. school system is one of the few in the nation with a student vaccine mandate — and also among a small number with an employee vaccine mandate. The employee mandate has already taken effect, with relatively modest disruption, because an overwhelming majority of workers complied. Employees could request an exemption for personal beliefs; students will not have that option.
The compliance rate, so far, of nearly 85% for students has improved since Nov. 22 when it was 80% and about 44,000 students were not on track. The district has waged an intense public-awareness campaign and there is widespread availability of vaccines on campus. About 450,000 pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students are enrolled in L.A. Unified.
"We have to give credit to the district for taking on the vaccination mandate and embracing the challenges that came with offering vaccinations at schools," said Ana Ponce, executive director of Great Public Schools Now, a locally based advocacy group. "And I think we need to be fair and not hold the district completely accountable for vaccine hesitancy."
All the same, she said, "What's the Plan B?"
Principals and other administrators posed that same question after a district presentation Monday night to their union, Associated Administrators of Los Angeles. What will happen after an exodus of students move to an online setting? How many teachers would have to follow them? Would campus classes and schedules have to be reshaped over night?