Local school districts throughout Orange County are wrestling with another debate, this time it’s centered around an expected vaccine mandate for all school children once the shots are fully approved by federal officials.
Waves of parents are showing up to local school board meetings to criticize Gov. Gavin Newsom’s upcoming vaccine mandate — which isn’t expected to kick in until after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fully authorizes the vaccine for certain age groups.
Many parents are worried about the safety of the vaccine and question how effective it is and argue that children are not at high risk of dying from the virus, while others welcome the mandate and say the shot will help end the pandemic by curbing new COVID-19 cases.
Earlier this month, Newsom said he expects the mandate to take effect in either January or July — depending on when the FDA fully authorizes the shots for children.
Currently, the vaccine is authorized for people 12 and over and has full FDA approval for people 16 years and older.
On Tuesday, an FDA advisory group recommended emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5-11.
And state public health officials are expected to provide an update Wednesday morning to reporters on the state’s plans to vaccinate children in that age group.
UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert Sanghyuk Shin said the vaccine doesn’t pose a significant risk to children.
“It’s natural for parents to be concerned, but all the data that I’ve seen suggests that these vaccines are highly effective and safe. That said, no vaccine or any kind of medicine is 100% safe. Overall, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks.”UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert Sanghyuk Shin
Shin added in the Tuesday phone interview that there are procedures in place to closely monitor the safety of the vaccine and rare occurrences of myocarditis in children.
“The data will continue to be monitored to make sure that in these rare cases of adverse events, if they do occur, we understand the cause better,” he said.
Debates over COVID-19 restrictions have emerged across the county since the start of the pandemic and now some parents are threatening to pull their children out of public schools over the expected vaccine mandate.
Many parents at local school board meetings say receiving a public education shouldn’t be dependent on COVID-19 vaccination status.
“I’m pro vaccine, my wife is pro vaccine, we’re both vaccinate, but I’m not in favor of forcing our kids and my neighbor’s kids to get a vaccine just so they can receive a public education,” said parent Mike McDermott at last week’s Capistrano Unified School District board meeting.
“As a voter and most importantly, as a parent, I’m asking you to fight this mandate with all of your power as elected officials,” he told board members.
Other parents say the mandate will help curb the pandemic.
“I believe that vaccines are a really invaluable tool and how to fight disease, especially during global health pandemics,” said Vanessa Santos, who called into the board meeting to support the mandate.
“We need these vaccines in order to get through this pandemic and move forward,” she said.
Last week, the Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees voted 4-2 to adopt a resolution pushing Newsom to reconsider or rescind the vaccine mandate for kids to go school.
The resolution argues that the vaccination mandate would drive students away from traditional in person K-12 schools and erode the state’s public school system.
“If families leave traditional K-12, or leave California due to the mandate, public and private school staff jobs will be lost. Some parents will leave the workforce to provide homeschooling. If a significant number of jobs are disrupted in this manner, it could have a negative effect on the state economy,” reads the adopted resolution.
Trustees Amy Hanacek and Krista Castellanos voted against the resolution and Trustee Pamela Braunstein was absent.
“We are not addressing and representing a huge swathe of this school district. This is really sad to me and again, it’s not going to fulfill anything that you want.”Trustee Amy Hanacek, said at the meeting
Most parents came to the meeting to speak against the mandates. At one point some people groaned at the Student Advisor Kanei Padhya when she abstained from voting on a specific portion of the resolution.
Shin said the expected mandate will reduce case rates.
“The vaccines have been proven to protect not only the students, but help prevent further spread of the virus that causes COVID,” he said in a Tuesday phone interview.
“If we want any semblance of having COVID be a disease that causes minimal harm so that we can kind of go back to normal, which is what everybody seems to want, I think we need to support vaccine mandates in schools,” Shin added.
Since Newsom announced the vaccine mandate earlier this month, students and parents have been calling on local school boards to oppose the requirement.
Not all the parents showing up to the meetings are against the vaccine mandate.
Sonia Dhaliwal, parent of a student in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, spoke in favor of the vaccine mandate at her district’s board meeting on Oct. 12.
“Please follow the science and not the noise. Just because certain voices and opinions are louder, it doesn’t mean that they are based on fact, or that they represent the majority of people in our district.”entia-Yorba Linda Unified School District
In a phone interview days after the meeting, Dhaliwal said many parents who support the vaccine mandate are afraid to show up to local school board meetings because they feel intimidated by the parents rallying against the requirement.
“I want the board to know that there are a lot of other people who feel like me, but they’re just not at meetings,” she said. “A lot of people probably — who are aware of the situation — are afraid of putting themselves out there, afraid of conflict, and that potential intimidation and comments they may face. The speakers get heckled at these meetings.”
Similar intimidation concerns have surfaced over the ethnic studies debate that’s flaring up throughout the county.
Most people spoke against the vaccine mandate during the close to two-hour public comment period at the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District’s Oct. 12 meeting.
“This vaccine that is being forced on our children has not gone through the years of trials, like other vaccines have. There is no data to show long term effects. It isn’t even protecting those who have been vaccinated, you can still get it and transmit it,” said Lindsay Cid at the meeting.
She said she will pull her children from the district if the mandate goes in effect and other parents would too.
“This vaccine should be a parental choice. The government does not decide for me, the schools do not decide for me. We live in America, the land of the free. My husband and I will decide for my children.”Lindsay Cid, at the meeting
Orange County residents are not just opposing the upcoming mandate at public comments.
Last week, protesters showed up to Huntington Beach’s Main Street to rally against California’s vaccine mandate for school children as part of a statewide school sitout where parents kept their kids from going to class in opposition to the expected mandate.
It’s not the first mandate some parents in Orange County have opposed. Many have objected to the universal masking mandate at schools.
Despite the pushback, Shin said the mask mandate has been working.
“Evidence is coming out on a weekly basis, comparing schools and counties that have had mask mandates versus those that didn’t. And, every single time the mask mandates do clearly have an impact,” he said.
“In my opinion, the data is very robust, very strong, that mask mandates are highly effective.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.