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Oct. 19—Local parents protesting Gov. Gavin Newsom's student COVID-19 vaccine mandate participated in a statewide walkout by keeping their students out of school.
Several local school districts saw noticeable dips in their attendance rates on Monday. Parents, teachers, students and community members protested in front of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office in downtown Bakersfield.
School attendance drops
School officials said that it's not possible to track the reason for Monday's absences but there were big dips at some local school districts from the previous Monday.
The dips were most precipitous in northwest elementary school districts. Norris School District Superintendent Cy Silver said the attendance rate Monday was 68.6 percent, compared to 94.9 percent a week ago. Rosedale Union Superintendent Sue Lemon didn't have final attendance figures available but estimated that attendance had dropped 25 percent on Monday.
Kern High School District's all-day absence rate last Monday was 7.4 percent, and this Monday it was an estimated 20.49 percent, according to district spokeswoman Erin Briscoe-Clarke.
Bakersfield City School District didn't see an unusual attendance dip, spokeswoman Tabatha Mills said. Attendance on Monday was at 79.4 percent, which is lower than last Monday's rate of 83.8 percent but higher than the previous Monday of 77.4 percent.
Rob Meszaros, spokesman for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, said the office was concerned about students missing school.
"We respect the right for people to peacefully advocate for their beliefs," he wrote in an email. "However, protesting by keeping students out of school will only lead to lost learning time."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and leading health experts have repeatedly said the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.
Walkout protest gathers steam downtown
Some protesters put shoes in front of the offices of the Rosedale Union School District on Monday. A similar staging was created at Norris School District's board meeting last week to represent students who would not show up to school should the vaccine mandate go into effect.
But the biggest protest in Kern County was in front of the KCSOS office downtown. Protesters' numbers were large enough that they spilled out over the sidewalk, nearly filling one lane of 17th Street.
Police didn't block off the lane but they allowed the protest to continue for more than an hour. One officer thanked the crowd. Many drivers passing by offered honks of appreciation.
The crowd prayed for those who lost their jobs to vaccination mandates and sang the national anthem. Local pastor Angelo Frazier served as an unofficial emcee for young children, parents, teachers and other community members to discuss their concerns via a microphone.
The crowd chanted "freedom" and "my body, my choice," recycling a popular slogan for abortion rights.
Much of the ire at Monday's protest was directed at Newsom.
"My governor is an idiot," one sign read.
Newsom's Oct. 1 order adds the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required immunizations for students. The order will go into effect by grade levels: first for grades 7-12 and later for grades K-6. It will go into effect the term after the FDA grants it full approval.
Meszaros estimates the rollout for grades 7-12 will not come until at least the start of the 2022-23 school year. It's not clear when the mandate would roll out for younger students.
He added that Newsom's mandate currently has a personal belief exemption that will allow parents to opt out. That could change if the legislature makes the mandate law.
Maria Sedona, the mother of Patriot Elementary students, teared up as she considered the prospect of homeschooling her children. She didn't want her children to be vaccinated but she badly wanted her students back in school where they could socialize.
"I don't agree with Newsom telling us what to do with our kids," she said. "We have to be their voice."
Many parents at the protest said they were planning to pull their students out of school to homeschool them if the mandate went through.
Chet Wiles, the father of students in Norris School District, said he and his wife are more worried about their children getting the flu than COVID-19. Their kids weren't fans of distance learning, but they wouldn't comply with the mandate to send their students to school.
"We would definitely pull them out," Wiles said.
Katie Branch, a KHSD teacher whose children attend Norris School District, said that if the vaccine mandate for students goes into effect, her family is making plans to leave California for a red state.
"I'm very, very frustrated," she said. "When they get the kids involved, it becomes a problem."
Branch said families are discussing ways to pool resources and hire a teacher privately, so their children can avoid the mandate. But she noted that this option is only available to families who have extra income — not the low-income students she serves.
Some attendees called on locally elected school boards to do more to fight the state mandates.
"If they're not fighting for us, they have to go," said Bryan Colebrook, a onetime candidate for KHSD's board of trustees.
"We need to take back our country, but first we need to take back our town," said Sammy Wells, a junior at Centennial High School.
Local officials who fight against state mandates could put their districts at risk, according to KCSOS. The district would be in violation of its legal obligation and such failure could result in legal, financial and other risks.
Staff mandate goes into effect at schools
One mandate that has gone into effect is a California Department of Public Health requirement that all school staff either prove they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to regular weekly testing.
The deadline for school staff to comply was Friday.
Lori Cisneros, a teacher at Valley Oaks Charter School in Tehachapi, held up a sign that read: "I'd rather be teaching but KCSOS won't let me."
Cisneros is one of five employees in KCSOS — out of 1,700 — who is on unpaid leave because of declining to follow the mandate.
The eighth grade literature and writing teacher who also teaches agriculture science said she applied for a religious exemption, but her employer did not accept any accommodations she suggested. They included having her work remotely or asking parents to sign a waiver.
She said her religious beliefs regarding the vaccination and testing are deeply held. She hesitated and said it was difficult to discuss.
"I just don't trust the government with testing," she said.
Emma South, a junior at Valley Oaks Charter School in Bakersfield, said she was protesting to support teachers. She said that her classmates lost their Spanish teacher who had also been put on unpaid leave, which she said has hit the tight-knit school hard.
"There's a heavy cloud on my school," she said.
Other school districts, including KHSD, BCSD, Rosedale Union and Norris, did not report having any teachers on unpaid leave.
You can reach Emma Gallegos at 661-395-7394.