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Faced with getting a COVID-19 vaccine or losing their jobs, thousands of hesitant Los Angeles school-district employees opted for a last-minute jab, allowing them to access schools and offices on Monday and resulting in 99% compliance among classroom teachers and 97% of all employees.
The high compliance rate — which includes those with an approved medical or religious exemption — fended off the need for a longer-term contingency plan that officials launched Monday in case the final vaccination rates were lower: Thousands of supervisors and staff from central and regional offices were deployed to campuses and classrooms. Some supervised classrooms or filled in for missing custodians and food-service workers. Police officers worked overtime.
Los Angeles — widely viewed as a national leader in COVID-19 safety measures — was among the first major school districts in the nation to issue an ultimatum to all employees amid the summer Delta surge: Get vaccinated or lose your job. The mandate came with the risk of serious disruption in the nation's second-largest school district, already struggling to fill a high number of teacher and other vacancies.
Yet the strategy has appeared to work as intended. Members of the administrators union got up to 99.4%. A small fraction of teachers, about 240, apparently opted against vaccination.
“I am heartened that the vast majority of our L.A. Unified staff stepped up and got vaccinated to protect themselves, their families and our schools from COVID-19," said school board President Kelly Gonez. "I appreciate the work our entire system has done to provide accurate information about the vaccine, offer multiple opportunities to be vaccinated and create contingency plans to ensure our schools remained sufficiently staffed today."
The teachers union called the figure for its members "a strong number that we hope will continue to climb in the coming days." All the same, about 500 members of United Teachers Los Angeles — which represents more than 30,000 teachers, librarians, nurses and counselors — stand to lose their jobs, the union said Monday.
Medical experts said the vaccination totals are impressive and evidence of the effect a mandate can have when an individual must choose between getting a vaccine and keeping a job.
"Vaccine mandates have been important policy tools that have served to boost vaccination rates in many workplaces, making those environments and the people who work and learn in them safer," said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UC San Francisco.
"LAUSD is an outstanding example to other school districts in California, and throughout the nation, of how rigorous and properly applied public health measures can be implemented in the school setting," said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, a professor of epidemiology and community health sciences at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
The vast majority of teachers and administrators — and large numbers of other workers — got vaccinated almost immediately when vaccines became widely available last March. And the leadership of employee unions was on board.
But large numbers also resisted for a wide range of reasons — and they did not comply happily.
One teacher, who requested anonymity, has long questioned COVID-era policy decisions. This teacher already had COVID, imparting a degree of natural immunity, and thinks the vaccine's success rate is too low to merit a mandate.
"I held out as long as I could," the teacher said. "I’m also pragmatic enough to not throw away 21 years toward retirement."
But some people persisted in their refusal.
Among them was Jon Goodman, who identified himself as a project manager for the district for seven years.
On Monday, Goodman attended a rally outside Birmingham Community Charter High School in the west San Fernando Valley. The protest was part of a statewide call to arms against California's impending student vaccine mandates.
Outside the campus, dozens of adults and children held signs such as “My Body, My Choice.” The children were being kept intentionally out of school to affect attendance rates, but there was limited impact in the district at large. Average attendance has been running at about 90%; on Monday, it was 88%, according to preliminary data. The difference could have been due to a school boycott or a natural fluctuation.
Goodman, 42, held a sign that read “LAUSD FIRED ME.”
As with other unvaccinated employees, last Friday was his final day. He said he applied unsuccessfully for a religious exemption.
“I’m sad to go. I enjoyed my job; I’m good at it,” Goodman said. “For me it wasn’t a choice. I knew I wasn’t going to get the vaccine."
Interim Supt. Megan Reilly said that even when an employee was judged to be entitled to an exemption, there had to be an alternative job available.
Teachers had better odds than many. If their exemption was approved, they had a chance to be transferred to City of Angels, a remote-learning program where the teacher has no in-person contact with either students or colleagues. Each transfer generally displaced a substitute or other teacher already assigned to City of Angels — who, presumably could move to a job on campus.
And City of Angels teachers without an exemption also have to be vaccinated. Becky Rotramel's son lost his teacher.
"She was an INCREDIBLE 2nd grade teacher," Rotramel wrote in an email. "This is our third change of teachers in two months of school. It has been extremely disorganized, and a complete headache."
Her son, she added, is "much less interested because it’s so disorganized and he has no bond with his teachers because they keep changing!"
Mike Tansill's son lost his third-grade teacher at Beethoven Elementary on the Westside.
"We all know how tough last year was," said Tansill, who blames the district and the teachers union for creating a tight vaccine timeline that led to disruption. "I don’t think this is helping for this year.”
"Don’t get me wrong," he added. "I’m totally on the side of telling teachers without a legitimate medical issue: Get vaccinated or find another line of work.”
Among employees, the mandate took a larger toll among non-teaching, mostly lower-salaried workers, who include teaching assistants, after-school and campus aides, bus drivers, custodians and food service workers. Still, the rates improved dramatically in recent days, from under 80% to about 95% of those vaccinated or accommodated.
"By pushing for termination, the district is taking a punitive approach that will deny workers re-employment rights," said Max Arias, executive director of Local 99 of Service Employees International Union. "Many of them are the same workers who just a year ago were hailed as heroes for feeding families and supporting our communities during the pandemic."
If employees were simply suspended indefinitely without pay — rather than being fired outright — Arias said, they could be entitled, once vaccinated, to get their jobs back for up to 39 months under rules governing layoffs.
School police took an especially heavy hit, with 43 of 300 employees not allowed to work as of Monday. The department already is stretched thin because of vacancies and budget cuts and has had to turn down some security requests from schools, a police union official said.
All the barred employees will be paid through October. All partly vaccinated employees must get their second shot by Nov. 15.
All in all, the day went well, said Nery Paiz, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents principals and other supervisors.
"Considering the magnitude of the deployment exercise, things are calm," Paiz said. "Since the beginning we were told it's not going to be perfect, but we will address issues as they arise as best we can."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.