Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Monday, Nov. 22 @ 4:18 p.m. / COVID-19, Education
DNUSD School Board Sends Letter Opposing Vaccine Mandates to State Officials
With Del Norte Unified School District’s superintendent anticipating further staffing challenges as a result of state COVID-19 vaccine mandates, trustees on Thursday decided to send a letter to California officials essentially asking, “At what point does life go back to normal?”
Drafted by DNUSD Superintendent Jeff Harris and Board Vice President Charlaine Mazzei, the district’s letter commends the state for quickly making the coronavirus inoculation available to the public, but states that rapidity has also made people question its validity.
DNUSD’s letter urges state legislators to keep religious, personal and medical exemptions to the vaccine in effect. Trustees also take issue with the lack of a public awareness campaign to inform people about the mandates and the inability of the public to provide comment before they’re enacted.
Harris, who had spoken with members of the public concerned about conflicting rules at the state level concerning their students having to wear masks while playing indoor basketball or volleyball, said the Board of Trustees often has its hands tied.
“You are the victim of circumstance and mandate,” Harris told trustees. “And the people who are responsible for saying, ‘Here’s what we’re doing’ and, maybe most importantly, ‘Here’s why we’re doing it,’ are not taking responsibility and ownership of that.”
DNUSD’s letter will be sent to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Sen. Mike McGuire, Assemblyman Jim Wood and to representatives at the California Department of Public Health and the Department of Health and Human Services, Harris said.
Harris said when he travels to Sacramento and starts speaking with other superintendents about Del Norte County or about rural California, he has heard statements about anti-vaxxers and people being uneducated.
Harris pointed out that most staff are vaccinated.
“This is about giving people some autonomy over their bodies,” he said. “It’s about saying we understand the role of vaccines in public health, but we want to be able to address the legitimate concerns of parents and staff and do what we are tasked with doing. We’ve got to get rid of the distractors. We’ve got to be as safe as we can, but we’ve got to get rid of the distractors.”
DNUSD’s letter is in response to an Oct. 1 announcement from Newsom, stating that the COVID-19 vaccine will be added to the list of inoculations K12 students must receive to attend public and private school.
Newsom’s order requires students in 7th- through 12th-grade and staff to be fully vaccinated by July 2022 and younger students receive the COVID shot by January 2023.
In its letter, DNUSD points out that, though its classrooms were closed during the spring of 2020, it reopened physically to students from mid-September through the end of the 2020-21 school year.
The letter states that there were very few instances of person-to-person COVID transmission in schools and touts its campuses as being among the safest environments students experienced during the pandemic.
In the letter, trustees say they’re concerned that a mandated COVID-19 vaccine will negatively impact the district’s ability to provide educational support to its students.
“We believe that these mandates will create significant issues of inequity and result in a lack of educational access for already beleaguered students and families, especially in rural areas, such as Del Norte,” the letter states.
In addition to urging state officials to allow families to make informed medical decisions for their children, DNUSD’s letter argues that it’s “highly reactive” to require school staff to be vaccinated against COVID or lose their job when there are no other inoculations or tests they’re mandated to have.
According to Harris, DNUSD currently has more than 100 open staffing positions, and “nobody to backfill when they’re gone” because it’s struggling to find substitutes for existing positions.
DNUSD argues that if Newsom’s order takes effect, school staff should be allowed to use their personal and religious belief exemptions “in a manner that preserves their ability to work in person without loss of income, benefit or employment.”
“I don’t think an appropriate response is ‘you have a religious, a deeply-held permanent religious belief against immunizations, so we’re going to put you on a 39-month rehire list,’” Harris said, adding that some school districts that have required vaccination are either dismissing staff or placing them on re-hire lists. “That would be devastating locally to our families and our economy.”
Harris credited Mazzei, especially, for the line in the letter stating “any vaccination goal set by the state would be better served through persuasion rather than compulsion.”
Mazzei said she is in favor of vaccinations. But after she and her colleagues discussed vaccine exemptions at the Board’s Oct. 28 meeting, she said she decided she didn’t like telling people what to do.
“I haven’t done it with the people that work for me,” she said. “It just makes it easier if you let people come to things in their own time.”
Three DNUSD students tested positive for COVID-19 over a period of 10 days as of Nov. 16, according to the district’s COVID dashboard.
Twelve new COVID-19 cases were identified and reported to the Del Norte Public Health Branch on Monday. One COVID case was identified among the county’s incarcerated population.
There were 30 active cases in the county as of Monday, according to Del Norte County’s COVID-19 Information Hub.
More than 51 percent of Del Norte County’s population is fully vaccinated as of Nov. 17, according to the California Department of Public Health.