97% of LAUSD teachers, administrators meet COVID-19 vaccination deadline

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Eagle Rock, CA - August 30: Registered Nurse Priscilla V., left, gives a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shot to Luis Nufio, an after-school coach, at Eagle Rock High School, as Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis, Interim Superintendent Megan K. Reilly, School Board members Kelly Gonez and Jackie Goldberg and special guests visit Los Angeles Unified School-based mobile vaccination clinics at Eagle Rock High School on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021 in Eagle Rock, CA. All employees in the Los Angeles Unified School District must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 15, an order that puts it at the forefront of school systems across the country that are mandating strict coronavirus safety measures for employees and students. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Registered nurse Priscilla V. administers a COVID-19 vaccination to Luis Nufio, an after-school coach, at Eagle Rock High School. About 97% of teachers union members had met a Friday vaccination deadline by early in the day. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

About 97% of Los Angeles teachers and 97% of administrators met the school district's Friday deadline to be vaccinated against COVID-19, a level of compliance that officials hoped would result in minimal disruption to classroom teaching in the sprawling district, according to information released Friday by officials.

The vaccine requirement applies to all Los Angeles Unified School District employees — about 73,000 — as well as parent volunteers and district contractors who work on campus. Employees of district-authorized charter schools also must comply.

In its release, the district did not include numbers for all employees. Vaccination rates have been lower for nonteaching, lower-wage workers, potentially causing scattered problems in food and maintenance services and other nonteaching posts.

The district also continues to test weekly for coronavirus infections among students and staff, which have dropped steadily since the start of the school year. Thousands of students, however, remain affected by quarantines after being identified as close contacts of those with infections. Last week, 503 students tested positive for an infection; 2,712 students entered quarantine. And new outbreaks — three or more linked cases — were identified at five campuses, according to district data.

The district vaccine numbers represent substantial progress since late September, when about 1 in 5 district employees had not submitted documentation of vaccination.

Officials would not disclose information about how many of the remaining 3% of teachers union members — about 1,000 — or other school employees have received vaccine exemptions for medical or religious reasons. Anyone without at least one vaccine dose will be prohibited from campuses on Monday, potentially disrupting the continuity of classroom education in the nation's second-largest school system.

"As we anticipated, our numbers of vaccinated staff are increasing steadily," L.A. school board President Kelly Gonez said. "We continue to encourage all employees to get vaccinated this week. I’m confident that the flexibilities we’ve established for those who receive their first dose by Oct. 15 will protect our employees who are making a full-faith effort to get vaccinated, while minimizing the impact to schools and services."

She added: "The vaccine mandate is top of mind for the entire system, and as a board member I have been asking for and receiving regular updates on our progress."

In an internal communication, United Teachers Los Angeles advised its unvaccinated members not to assume they could transfer to the largely online City of Angels program and work remotely.

"Employees without accommodations who do not receive at least one dose of the vaccine by Oct. 15 will not be able to teach in the City of Angels online program," the communication said. "Only members who receive accommodations, along with volunteers/transfers from school sites who are vaccinated, can be assigned to the City of Angels program."

The union emphasized the importance of following through either by uploading documentation or getting a first shot.

"If you have been vaccinated but not yet provided proof to LAUSD, we encourage you to do so as soon as possible," the union stated. "Employees who do not provide proof of at least one dose of the vaccine will not be allowed on any LAUSD school or work site after Oct. 15 and will be subject to termination unless they’ve received a medical or religious accommodation."

The union did not respond to a request for further comment. United Teachers Los Angeles represents more than 30,000 teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians.

The teachers union has endorsed mandatory vaccinations both for employees and students — and, during the previous school year, the union opposed calls to reopen campuses until all members had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated. District officials agreed to this condition, and as a result, campuses did not reopen until mid-April, later than in some other school systems.

The vast majority of teachers quickly obtained vaccinations when they became available, but a sizable minority resisted. Vaccination hesitancy has been consistently higher among members of the district's other large labor group: Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which represents about 28,000 nonteaching employees, including large numbers of lower-wage workers.

The original deadline for employees to be fully vaccinated — two weeks past the final shot — had been Friday. This week, however, interim Supt. Megan K. Reilly extended the deadline. But employees still had to get a first shot — of any vaccine authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — by the original Friday deadline, with full vaccination required by Nov. 15.

SEIU Local 99 pushed for the extension in contract negotiations. By the end of Thursday, the union estimated about 83% of its members were vaccinated, spokeswoman Blanca Gallegos said.

"However, we have heard from many members that there are still issues with uploading proof of vaccination into the district’s system, so we expect the numbers will increase once those issues are resolved," Gallegos said.

SEIU Local 99 members include food service workers, custodians, bus drivers and special-education assistants.

A third union, Local 500 of the California School Employees Assn., reported a vaccination rate of 93.1% Friday morning. That union represents about 3,700 clerical workers, campus financial managers, library aides and other support staffers.

Employee displacements and transfers could result in disruption at schools where several workers are affected. Other schools are likely to see little or no change — 1,000 unvaccinated teachers works out to an average of about one per campus in the massive school system.

But the fallout will be substantial for individuals who are directly affected — and their students or colleagues.

"I loathe LAUSD for what they are doing," said an unvaccinated teaching assistant who works with disabled students. "I don’t even want to work for them anymore."

A teacher who got vaccinated as a last resort remains angry.

"This is unconscionable," said the teacher, who like the other employee asked not to be named. "Our freedoms and livelihood are being taken away."

Many other district employees — and parents — have expressed relief that the mandate is being enforced. They see it as an important additional safety measure. For some, it can't come too soon.

L.A. Unified students 12 and older have a different timeline but also must be vaccinated in the coming weeks. A parent has filed litigation over that requirement.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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