Several large California school districts are facing a potential crisis at the end of the semester: Thousands of their students remain unvaccinated or have yet to provide proof of vaccination, despite looming deadlines.
Among those districts is West Contra Costa Unified School District, as well as those in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Oakland. As of Wednesday, for example, only 33% of the West Contra Costa district’s students aged 12 and older had verified that they received both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, which is required to continue in-person education.
That means weeks ahead of the district’s Jan. 3 vaccine mandate deadline, the status of about 8,000 students remains unknown. Students who aren’t fully vaccinated by the deadline will either have to enroll in the district’s independent study program, Vista Virtual Academy, or leave the district. It’s likely that many families just haven’t gotten around yet to submitting their children’s vaccination status. The state touts that more than 70% of children ages 12-17 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, but parents must still submit their children’s proof of vaccine to their district.
But if even a fraction of that number of students does not get vaccinated and chooses independent study, it could overwhelm the virtual academy, which remains short-staffed.
“The reality is that we have a virtual academy that doesn’t have enough teachers,” chief academic officer LaResha Martin told EdSource. Superintendent Kenneth “Chris” Hurst, at a school board meeting Wednesday, said he no longer believes the Jan. 3 deadline for the vaccine mandate is feasible. He intends to propose pushing the date back, possibly to July 2022 to line up with the state’s student vaccine deadline.
In an email, Hurst said the district will use the data of vaccinated children to adjust the virtual academy’s staffing as necessary.
“We are dedicated to ensuring that our students have the same level of access as our brick and mortar schools,” he said.
In the meantime, the district is boosting its outreach efforts and holding vaccine clinics. Martin laid out some options for dealing with the potential flood of independent study students: The district can and will continue trying to hire teachers and could propose moving unvaccinated teachers to the virtual academy — though they are not required to move to different schools. Currently, 85% of school staff have provided proof of vaccination.
Similar situations are playing out throughout California. Many districts adopted stricter deadlines than the state’s vaccine mandate, which goes into effect in the first semester, either Jan. 1 or July 1, following the federal Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Covid vaccine for each age group. Currently, only the Pfizer vaccine is fully approved for people 16 and older. The Pfizer vaccine also has emergency authorization for use in children aged 12-16.
Los Angeles Unified — which enrolls about one-fifth of California’s students — is facing the vaccine dilemma. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that 34,000 students had not complied with the district’s vaccine mandate, and would not have enough time to get fully vaccinated by the Jan. 10 start of the second semester. That’s more than twice as many students as are currently enrolled in LA Unified’s independent study program, City of Angels, which has been hampered by staffing shortages.
On Friday, LA Unified announced a proposal to allow unvaccinated students to continue in-person instruction until the 2022 fall semester, at which point they would have to enroll in independent study if they’re still not vaccinated. District officials touted that 86.52% of eligible students were vaccinated. That proposal will go to the school board for approval Dec. 14.
For Sacramento City Unified, only a quarter of its middle and high school students turned in proof that they had received at least one Covid-19 vaccine by the Nov. 30 deadline. That leaves more than 14,000 students 12 and older to sign up for independent study.
Only about 60% of students 12 and older at Oakland Unified — about 6,000 — were fully vaccinated by Dec. 1, Oaklandside reported last week. The lack of vaccination verifications prompted school board members Wednesday to push back the district’s deadline from Jan. 1 to Jan. 31, KTVU reported.
About 1,000 unvaccinated Oakland students qualified for either a medical or religious exemption, Oakland Unified officials told Oaklandside. Unlike Oakland, West Contra Costa and LA Unified have not offered religious or personal belief exemptions to their vaccine mandates.
West Contra Costa’s Martin said the district has been scrambling since the start of the semester to hire enough teachers to meet the demand for the virtual academy, which has its own designated staff. Even before the pandemic, however, the state and county faced a school staffing shortage, which only got worse after many left the profession. Other schools at West Contra Costa Unified are also short of teachers.
“We don’t have enough teachers; that’s just the bottom line,” Martin said.
As of Wednesday, 262 students were on the waitlist for the virtual academy. The district is actively hiring teachers for it, Martin said. But among the hundreds of people who respond to the district’s job listings, only a handful are qualified.
Martin said the academy had been in the works for years before the pandemic and was designed as a year-round option for the handful of families that wanted a virtual school option for their kids. It was not designed to be the state-required independent study option for the entire district, which parents often only seek out for a short period of time.
As a result, students are constantly coming and going from the academy, Martin said, which has caused instability as classes are constantly readjusting. Some families now feel comfortable sending their children to in-person school since there will be a vaccine mandate, while others want to send their children to the virtual academy in order to avoid getting them vaccinated.
Teachers and school staff “are doing a whole reset, adding new students to classes, trying to reorganize their school,” Martin said. “It’s a constant revolving door, and that’s not what it was originally designed for. I would hope people are understanding.”
Editor’s note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the West Contra Costa Unified School District as a way to illustrate challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.