Facing major campus disruption and firings, LAUSD extends staff COVID-vaccine deadline

Eagle Rock, CA - August 30: A nurse gives a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shot to Roxanne Juarez, special education assistant at Fletcher Drive Elementary, 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)
A nurse gives a COVID-19 vaccine shot to special education assistant Roxanne Juarez at Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School in August. School officials on Monday pushed back an Oct. 15 for full vaccination. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles school district — confronted with widespread campus disruption and the firing of potentially thousands of unvaccinated teachers and other staff — has extended the looming deadline for all workers to be fully immunized for COVID-19.

The prior deadline of Oct. 15 — this Friday — has been moved to Nov. 15, when employees must have received the second of two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, according to a brief district statement. The district did not clearly state a timetable for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Interim Supt. Megan Reilly said the move represents the right balance of firmness and forbearance.

"We don’t want people to be out of jobs," Reilly said in an interview. "Our employees are one of the strongest assets that we have.” At the same time, she said, "we're absolutely adamant about keeping our schools the safest possible environment — and vaccinations are clearly the pathway to keeping them safe."

While wanting to give employees time to make a choice, including about which vaccine, "there is not an endless amount of time," Reilly said. "People have to be vaccinated or they’re not going to be part of the district."

The district declined Monday to provide an updated number or percentage of teachers and other employees who have failed to clear the vaccination requirement. At a Sept. 27 board meeting, officials stated that about 1 in 5 employees, possibly well over 10,000 people, had not yet provided evidence of vaccination. The district also declined to report how many employees have applied for religious or medical exemptions or how many have been approved.

Reilly said those with exemptions would have to shift to an available job assignment that did not entail direct contact with others. Some teachers with exemptions, for example, have been assigned to the City of Angels program, which provides remote, partly online instruction through a modified form of independent study.

The extension comes as the nation's second-largest school system has struggled to fill more than 2,000 teaching and other vacancies, including counselors, nurses and maintenance staff. The hiring figures were reported Sept. 27.

Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which represents most non-teaching employees, including large numbers of lower-wage workers, pushed for the extension in contract negotiations. The union provided a copy of a "side letter agreement," dated Friday, which lays out the basic terms.

The purpose of the extension is "to ensure that workers will have sufficient time to be fully vaccinated," the union said in a post. The extension will enable staff "to maintain a safe and healthy environment ... and minimize disruption of services as we continue to face the challenges of the pandemic."

In early August, L.A. Unified announced that all employees must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15 — giving an estimated 75,000 workers about nine weeks to complete an immunization process that can take up to six weeks. Because maximum immunity is achieved two weeks after the final dose, the effective deadline for receiving a final shot was actually about Oct. 1.

The L.A. Unified requirement was endorsed by the teachers union and some other employee unions. No union openly opposed it.

An employee who has not received a first shot by Friday will be suspended with pay and not allowed on campus as of Oct. 18.

However, according to Local 99, once employees receive a shot — before Oct. 31 — they would be able to return to work while they await a second dose but would have to go on unpaid leave as of Nov. 16 while waiting to achieve maximum immunity.

Reilly declined to endorse the union's interpretation of timelines. For her, the message is simple: Employees need to get their first shot this week if they want to ensure keeping their jobs.

Employees who refuse to be vaccinated will be paid at least through October.

The district declined to provide information in response to multiple requests to report the number of unvaccinated teachers, whose absence would disrupt the continuity of classroom learning. The teachers union did not respond for comment.

Local 99 estimates that about 80% of its 21,648 members at L.A. Unified "have a record of vaccination" for at least one dose, spokeswoman Blanca Gallegos said. Its members include food service workers, custodians, bus drivers and special education assistants.

It worried parent Torr Leonard that unvaccinated district staff would pose a risk for an extended period.

"I will consider having my kid do 'Zoom school' from home if it turns out that his teacher (or anyone else he has indoor contact with at his elementary school) has not gotten vaccinated by Oct 15th," said Leonard, whose son attends Gault Street Elementary in Lake Balboa. "It's ridiculous that adults were even given this long to get vaccinated, to begin with."

Jenna Schwartz, co-founder of Parents Supporting Teachers, said she supported the extension for those who genuinely struggled with the vaccination decision and now needed time for a second shot.

"But I do not think that this should be allowed to serve as a holding place for anyone trying to avoid both losing their job as well as getting vaccinated," Schwartz said.

On a separate track, there's also a student vaccination deadline approaching for those 12 and older, although enforcement of one requirement has been pushed back.

When announced, officials said that students must receive their first of two doses no later than Oct. 3 to participate in extracurricular activities, including all sports and clubs. Weeks later, officials said that Oct. 3 simply would be a guideline for when students should be immunized, but that no students would be barred from activities at that time. Nonetheless, students will need to have submitted documentation of a final dose by Oct. 31.

"After October 31, 2021, your child will not be permitted to participate in in-person extracurricular activities without proof of vaccination if they qualify to receive the COVID-19 vaccine," the district says in information posted online.

Students — vaccinated or not — can attend school in person through the fall semester. To resume in-person instruction in January, all eligible students without medical exemptions would have to receive a first dose no later than Nov. 21 and a second dose no later than Dec. 19.

Students return to class Jan. 11. By Jan. 10, proof of vaccination would have to be “uploaded and approved in LAUSD’s Daily Pass program.”

The district has declined to provide recent updates on the number or percentage of eligible students who have been vaccinated.

L.A. Unified's COVID-19 immunization requirements are stricter than the state's both for employees and for students.

The vaccination mandate also applies to independently operated charter schools authorized by L.A. Unified — provided that they share a campus with a district-run program. Independent charters that occupy an entire district campus — such as Palisades Charter High School — are not subject to the district's mandate.

All L.A. Unified employees and students will continue mandatory weekly testing for a coronavirus infection.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.