With many parents and other community members sharing concerns about the impact on local schools if the state mandates COVID-19 vaccines for students, the Board of Trustees of Tehachapi Unified School District on Nov. 16 voted 7-0 to let the state of California know it opposes vaccine mandates for students in K-12 schools and school programs.
The matter came before the board at the request of Trustee Tyler Napier.
“It is very apparent to me that the overwhelming majority of parents and members of the community are adamantly against a COVID vaccination mandate for the children,” he told fellow board members, adding that he agrees with them 100 percent.
“Parents in our community have lived in fear for the past 20 months,” Napier said. “And that has not been fear of COVID, it has been fear that 20 months of our children's lives have been stolen from them. And now the new fear is that we may be forced to make a decision to vaccinate our children, or pull our children out of school.”
He said that a strong letter of opposition is the first step the district should take to show the community that the school board hears their concerns and fears and supports them.
Trustee Tracy Kelly suggested the board should take it a step further.
“I’m not going to repeat and rehash what he (Napier) said,” Kelly noted, adding that he has heard from parents opposed to a vaccine mandate also.
“I would like us to say that we are not going to follow any mandate that may come along with vaccination for our children,” he added.
“Well, I'm opposed to the mandate, obviously, so simple answer,” Trustee Rick Scott said, drawing applause from the audience. Later in the discussion, though, he said he would be concerned about the financial impact if the board decided to defy the state.
“That's a big concern, obviously,” he said.
Trustee Joe Wallek said he supported a board resolution against mandates in general.
“We should put the backbone in the resolution and walk the talk,” he said, “maybe make a motion not to recognize mandates.” He said he wasn’t only talking about vaccines, and said he thinks a movement is growing with small districts throughout the state opposing state mandates.
Jackie Wood, clerk of the board, said she is opposed to a vaccine mandate, but that she knows others who feel differently.
“I just want you to know that I do hear just as many for it (a mandate),” she said, adding that she knows people who work at the hospital and others who support a vaccine mandate.
She suggested the board might do a survey.
“So that everybody gets heard, you know, because we're not hearing from everybody,” she said. “I just think we need to get the pulse of our community. It’s a hard decision.”
Trustee Nancy Weinstein expressed a concern that taking a position is premature.
“So, the first thing that needs to happen is the Department of Public Health needs to do a thorough review and present some science, and then they will open up a period for comment,” she said. “And we will be able to have input at that time.”
She also questioned if the board really knows if all the people in the community are against a vaccine mandate.
“We're basing it on the comments from people that we know and that are talking to us,” she said.
Weinstein added that she would like to see what the California Department of Public Health does after it has reviewed all the data.
“We don’t even know if there is going to be a mandate,” she said, noting that increased vaccination might be of benefit.
“What freedom will that give us not to have masks, not to cancel games, not to shut down classrooms,” she asked. “We don't even know what we will gain from that yet. We don't know because we have not seen what they're going to do.”
Board President Jeff Kermode shared his thoughts last, expressing his concern that the board has been put in a tough position, having sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution and also the laws of the state of California.
“That’s the government that’s put us in this conflict,” he said. “How do we try and speak up and exercise our rights under the Constitution, when some of the laws appear to conflict with the Constitution?”
He said he thinks Wood is right, that the opposition to a vaccine mandate is not unanimous in the community — but also that most of the feedback the board has received is in opposition to a mandate.
“I am 100 percent in support of a resolution or a letter at this stage that expresses our strong opposition to any type of vaccine mandate,” Kermode said.
“If it were a letter or resolution that stated Tehachapi Unified School District will not follow the law, you would lose my vote. I would vote against it. I have no choice in my mind, that’s what I have to do,” he added, drawing applause.
Despite reservations expressed by Weinstein and Wood, the vote was unanimous, followed by another vote to authorize Superintendent Stacey Larson-Everson to share the board’s position on the matter.
In person and via online comments a number of parents expressed opposition to the vaccine mandate.
On Oct. 1 Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of vaccinations required for middle and high school grade students attending school in person, making California the first state in the nation to announce such a measure. He said once the COVID-19 vaccine receives full approval from the Food and Drug Administration, it will be required for in-person school attendance — just like vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and others diseases.
By Oct. 29 the governor had not yet formalized such a mandate, but in response to many inquiries, Larson-Everson issued a letter to families. She said if such an order is issued, TUSD staff will work with local county education and health officials to clearly understand and determine how the specifics of the order would impact the community.
The earliest such a mandate would be in effect, she said, is believed to be July 1, 2022. What exemptions might be allowed is still unknown, she noted.
In her letter, and at the Nov. 16 school board meeting, Larson-Everson said that the state will provide an opportunity for public comment prior to related rulemaking if the mandate is enacted.
Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: email@example.com.