School Board signals support for a student vaccine mandate

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Board of Education trustees on Wednesday night expressed their strong support for developing a student vaccine mandate (with medical exemptions) and directed Superintendent Randy Booker to draft a policy for discussion at the next school board meeting. Currently, families of students in grades 6 – 12 who are age 12 and older are being asked to provide proof of vaccination to assist district nurses with contact tracing and quarantine protocols, but there is no COVID-19 vaccine requirement as exists for other childhood immunizations. 

The move comes on the heels of FDA approval for the two-dose Pfizer vaccine for ages 16+ and in anticipation of emergency authorization of that vaccine for elementary-age students in October. Booker noted that the Culver City School District recently made news for announcing a vaccination mandate for students, but has no policy in place or that has been made public for consideration, he said. He also said that there is currently no Ed Code, state or federal law, or case history that covers mandating COVID vaccines for students. Because of the lack of case law around the issue, Booker told the board they would need to consider the possible exposure for litigation. Nevertheless, “I think it’s worth what might come in the interest of student and staff health,” he said. He said he would use the district’s current vaccine policy as a model when drafting the language.

Student vaccine status requested

PUSD families of students in grades 6 – 12 received an email on Wednesday asking for vaccine status in order to assist the district nurses in the event of a COVID exposure. According to district nurse Carol Menz, they had received good immediate response so far: Of the 1,451 students contacted, 417 responses had been received within hours, with 353 providing proof of vaccination. The 64 who did not share vaccine proof were not asked for a reason why. (A number of 6th graders are not yet 12 years old and therefore not eligible). The nurses will report a more complete picture at the next board meeting once all families have time to comply with the request. 

High number of district staff are fully vaccinated

Menz also told the Board that 95% of district staff (368 individuals) have provided proof of vaccination, leaving 5% who will need to be tested weekly per state mandates. She said that among the ten staff members who tested on Wednesday, “a number have chosen not to submit their vaccination cards as they are interested in participating in weekly testing, particularly teachers of younger students who are unvaccinated.”

PUSD had originally planned for 2x weekly testing, but Booker said the state’s August 11 announcement of 1x weekly testing overrode that plan. PUSD uses the BinaxNOW rapid test that gives results in 15 minutes but may need to move to PCR testing with longer turnaround times due to supply chain issues with the rapid tests. Weekly testing for those not providing vaccination proof began this week and will continue every Wednesday, chosen as the most convenient day of week for staff because of early release schedules.

The Board and Superintendent Booker highlighted the free vaccination clinic in partnership with the Alameda County Department of Public Health on on Wednesday, Sept. 1 at Piedmont Middle School for everyone in the community age 12 and over. Booker emphasized that anyone connected to Piedmont, not just the school community, was encouraged to take advantage of the vaccine opportunity, and Board President Cory Smegal praised City Mayor Teddy Gray King for her support of the initiative.

Health and Safety Steering Committee meets, supports outdoor masking requirement on campuses

PUSD’s newly formed Health and Safety Steering Committee met for the first time for an hour on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 25. Members of the committee include Superintendent Booker and Assistant Superintendent Cheryl Wozniak, Chief Financial Officer Ruth Alahydoian, Director of Communications and Community Relations Brian Killgore, Director of Special Education Douglas Harter, Board President Cory Smegal, Trustee Amal Smith, district nurses Carol Menz, Claudia Garcia, and Amy Jo Goldfarb, and a team of health professionals from the community: Dr. Brian Block, Dr. Karen Booth, Dr. James Crawford-Jakubiak, Dr. Sarah Handelsman, Dr. George Rutherford, Dr. Richard Turner, and Dr. Kristen Wendorf. The committee was formed to advise the superintendent and the Board of Education “in making district-wide decisions regarding how to best support the safety of our students, staff, and community from the impact of COVID-19.” Booker said the group would meet regularly to discuss hot topics like break-through cases that bubble up from parents and staff, but will also provide a look ahead as experts share their perspectives.

“As a district we want to make decisions based health and safety and science,” Booker said, “we don’t want fear to drive our decisions.” He said the committee offered unilateral support of the district’s outdoor masking requirement, as an example.

“I was encouraged to hear the current surge should decline in the next couple of weeks,” said Smegal, and that vaccine approval was expected by early October for children ages 5 – 12, and boosters by the end of September. 

Trustee Smith acknowledged the good news, but noted that “It is likely we will be riding this roller coaster for the rest of the year,” with another potential surge occurring this winter, per the health professionals on the call.

Booker told the Board that committee members have committed to participating through the first semester and would be available to attend board meetings to weigh in on any issues as necessary. The committee will hold its second meeting Wednesday, Sept. 8.

PUSD dashboard 

Last week the district launched a dashboard on its website to provide weekly snapshots of COVID cases in the schools. In response to a parent call for more detailed information to be included in the reporting, Booker said the dashboard design was deliberate, in that the district had both an obligation to protect the privacy of families who have reported cases and an interest in making sure that families continue to report cases vs hiding them out of fear of real — or perceived — shaming by other families. “The district will communicate right away with affected families,” he said. 

“When nurses are imploring us to take action in a certain way, we are going to lean on them for direction,” said Smegal. 

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