Two teachers, a teaching assistant and a cafeteria manager — all were opposed to the COVID-19 vaccination mandate for Los Angeles school employees. One remains teaching, but lost a beloved position; another was fired outright. An employee who won an exemption is out of work anyway. And yet another gave in to a jab at the last minute, but only because of a family crisis.
Their anti-vaccine views are outliers among some 73,000 colleagues, 95% of whom have had at least one shot. But Jamal Y. Speakes Sr., Hovik Saponghian, Angela Karapetyan and Nadine Jackson paid a price for holding to personal beliefs in the face of public-health policy mandates and experts who cite strong evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.
The Los Angeles Unified School District was among the first school systems in the nation to require employees to be vaccinated. The Oct. 15 deadline prompted a last-minute surge among thousands who were hesitant. No vaccine meant no entry onto a campus — and likely no job.
Similar vaccination deadlines — and decisions — are approaching for Los Angeles city workers, including police officers and firefighters, who got an extension this week to get their shots by Dec. 18 or face "corrective action," which includes launching a dismissal process.
According to recent figures provided by L.A. Unified, 2,214 district employees did not apply for or did not receive an exemption. They have lost their jobs or are on track to do so. About 1,500 others received an exemption — 175 for a serious medical condition or disability, and 1,325 for a "sincerely held religious belief."
Veteran high school teacher Speakes applied for a religious exemption and got one. The cost? He had to give up the popular film-production program he built at Valley Oaks Center for Enriched Studies in Sun Valley. His classes concentrated on teaching students behind-the-camera skills.
"In the light of my seriously held God-following beliefs, my heart, soul and mind belong to the Almighty Creator Elohim," said Speakes, 50, "it is against my faith and conscience to have any of this injected into my body. I truly believe the God-given immune system has been proven to be the strongest against communicable disease."
He has other justifications, too, including a wariness "as an African American male with the prolonged negative history with this country and its governmental experiments." He's referring, in part, to the Tuskegee experiments, from 1932 to 1972, in which U.S. government researchers used Black men with syphilis to study the effects of the disease rather than trying to treat or cure them.
Speakes was assigned to work at City of Angels, a remote-learning program where the teacher has no in-person contact with either students or colleagues. His and other teacher transfers generally displaced a substitute or other teacher already working with a group of students, further disrupting a program that has been chaotic and ineffective for many.
His new assignment is a challenging fit.
"I'm a film teacher and I have AP calculus, AP U.S. history, government, health, biology, PE, chemistry as my classes," Speakes said. While students are supposed to work independently on a digital platform called Edgenuity, "what if a student has a question or is special needs and needs help with [calculus], or chemistry? They won’t be able to get answers or help from me, who is supposed to be their teacher."
The students he left behind aren't faring so well, either.
"The school isn’t going to be the same without Mr. Speakes," said junior Steve Orantes. "He always brought energy and joy to his classes. But today no one felt it."
According to Orantes and another student, a substitute teacher had students just sit quietly and do homework for other classes. Some students fiddled with their phones.
Hovik Saponghian, a teaching assistant at Saticoy Elementary School, also in Sun Valley, applied successfully for a religious exemption but can't return to that campus and appears unlikely to keep his job anywhere in L.A. Unified.
A teaching assistant is an in-person job, which is off limits to the unvaccinated.
"My Christian faith influences me and the idea of being careful of what I put in my body and having the ability to decide what I should do is something that I believe applies to everyone whether you are religious or not," said Saponghian, who like others interviewed has a long list of reasons. "I had COVID and the flu was significantly worse than COVID for me. I also don’t like how the companies who make these vaccines aren’t reliable or responsible for adverse health risks."
As a teaching assistant, he'd grown close to the children at his school as he continued his own education and had hoped to return as their full-fledged teacher next year, especially in an Armenian dual-language program.
"Words can’t explain the joy I have working with these kids and the joy of seeing them speak, read, and write in Armenian," Saponghian said. "I miss those kids every day."
Saponghian will be paid through Oct. 31 and will move to unpaid status. Some displaced but exempt employees are using up vacation and sick days and then plan to ride out the months on unpaid leave, perhaps working temporary jobs — with the hope that the mandate will be dropped before next fall.
The consequence is official for Angela Karapetyan; this week the board for Granada Hills Charter fired the math teacher with 18 years' experience along with seven other employees. Karapetyan, 39, said she and other employees had offered to take daily coronavirus tests, pay for their own tests, wear double masks.
"Teaching is what I’ve loved to do all my life," said Karapetyan, who had three algebra and three pre-calculus courses this year. "It’s the only career I’ve ever had. I never wanted to do anything else.”
COVID touched her family directly. Her case was mild, but her husband had to be hospitalized around last Thanksgiving.
“There’s a reason I survived COVID," she said. ”There’s a reason why God wants me here. I can’t go with this vaccine and neither will my family."
She plans to pull her daughter, 11, and son, 13, out of L.A. schools once the mandate reaches them. Maybe she'll home-school or find a private school. But then there's also the loss of her income and benefits to contend with.
Nadine Jackson, the food service manager at Banning High School in Wilmington, so steadfastly opposed vaccination that she sounded off in a letter to the Board of Education, calling out "all the decision makers who decided to take away our freedom to choose, to those who didn't stand up for us knowing this is not right, and to those who are afraid to speak up."
She blames a flu vaccine 12 years ago for a serious bout that landed her in the hospital and for her asthma.
Jackson, 51, is a proud L.A. Unified alum who finished high school in 1989 as a teen parent, completing an alternative program in Watts for students at risk of dropping out.
Her "first real job," as she put it, was as a three-hour cafeteria worker at Drew Middle School. She took classes in her off time and gradually moved up: senior cafeteria worker, cafeteria manager I, II, and III. She has worked at Castelar Elementary, Dorsey High, Fleming Middle, back to Drew Middle and finally Banning — supervising a staff of 11.
After schools shut down on March 13, 2020, Jackson was out there the first day that L.A. Unified started distributing meals to the community.
"Some days we served over 14,000 bags of food and that doesn't include the food bank boxes. We — I — were there every day," Jackson said. "We were praised and held as heroes."
She also worked shifts as a licensed vocational nurse, including treating COVID patients.
"We have gone from heroes to zeros," she said. "As an American, where I thought we were free, I choose to say what goes in my body.
"I am the person that received a certificate of appreciation a few weeks ago," she said in her letter to the Board, "with all your signatures, thanking and congratulating me for thirty years of service to this district."
Jackson was resolute — looking at postings for jobs at Amazon and pondering driving a rig — until the unexpected happened.
On Sept. 29, a freeway motorcycle accident left her husband with a broken arm, a fractured pelvis and a detached spine. He underwent three major surgeries within a week. He can't work and L.A. Unified health benefits have suddenly become a lifeline.
"I have a new battle and losing is not an option," Jackson said. "I have to fight to restore my husband back to total health."
She told her co-workers: "The devil has been busy." One responded: "Maybe God has been busy, making sure you get vaccinated."
Although her views are unchanged, the day before the deadline, on Thursday, Oct. 14, she got the vaccine.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.