LAUSD ends COVID-19 vaccine mandate for staff. Displaced workers can apply for openings

Eagle Rock, CA - August 30: Dr. Barbara Ferrer, left, director of the Los Angles County Department of Public Health, talks to Tsolair Bitar, center, 30, a 6th-grade teacher, after she received a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shot 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)
Barbara Ferrer, left, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, talks to Tsolair Bitar, center, a sixth-grade teacher, after she received a COVID-19 vaccine in 2021. The LAUSD school board has lifted the district's employee COVID-19 vaccine mandate. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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Two years ago, the L.A. Unified School District set a high bar for COVID safety, telling employees: Get vaccinated or lose your job. That vaccine mandate — which achieved a 99% compliance rate among teachers — ended this week after a 6-1 vote by the Board of Education.

The nation's second-largest school system — widely viewed as a pacesetter in strong COVID-19 safety measures early in the pandemic emergency — had been among the last public school systems to continue a mandate. LAUSD, however, has been under pressure to change course because of ongoing litigation. Officials stressed that their actions were based on evolving science. And no one made any apologies during a board meeting Tuesday.

Read more: More COVID shots are coming. Will a weary public be more interested this year?

"Yes, this board approved, required vaccinations, as a means of reducing transmission, reducing the severity of a disease that in this community, across this country and across the world killed millions," L.A. Unified Supt. Alberto Carvalho said. "This was a necessary requirement, and it was adopted so that schools could reopen safely based on information that was known, then accepted, then verified, then validated ... not by speculation, but by scientists.

"In 2023," he added, "we face vastly different circumstances."

Carvalho and others noted that the coronavirus has become endemic — it's not going to go away — and also said that the need for a vaccine requirement is outdated because of evolving understanding about the virus, the successes and limitations of vaccines, and the availability of therapeutics.

Employee union leaders and medical experts advising the board voiced strong support for the mandate at the time it was approved. District officials said many of these same experts advise a different course going forward.

Board member George McKenna voted to preserve the requirement, saying that it had saved lives and lessened the severity of the illness — and that it probably would still do so.

Read more: Why no one is talking about new mask rules even as COVID-19 rises in L.A.

The district on Tuesday did not provide the number of employees who declined to be vaccinated or lost jobs. Hundreds of unvaccinated teachers were initially accommodated by allowing them to transfer to online academies that were set up after most students returned to in-person instruction in the fall of 2021.

But at least 250 teachers have lost jobs since then, as optional online enrollment has steadily declined, said Mark Muskrath, an unvaccinated virtual academy teacher who has closely followed the fate of unvaccinated teachers and related litigation against the school system.

Officials said unvaccinated former employees would not automatically reclaim jobs but could be considered for open positions.

Muskrath said an estimated 500 nonteaching workers also lost jobs — with no recourse to work at a virtual academy.

"It is painful to see people lose jobs and not have a paycheck for over a year,” Muskrath said in an interview. "I am very happy that the board rescinded the vaccine mandate and hope we can have a good return agreement."

At the board meeting — as at many board meetings — speakers against the requirement expressed their anger at the board.

“End your stupid and cruel vaccine mandate," attorney Jennifer Kennedy said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.