Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Friday, Oct. 29 @ 4:16 p.m. / Education

DNUSD Trustees to Urge State Legislators To Honor Vaccine Exemptions


(Updated at 6:47 p.m. to correct an error: The walkout did not cost the district $4 million, according to Assistant Superintendent of Business Jeff Napier. If Del Norte Unified School District had 350 fewer students next year, it would cost the students $4 million, he said Saturday.)

Nearly two weeks after roughly 750 students participated in a walkout opposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the local school board authorized its superintendent to urge state legislators to keep religious, personal and medical exemptions in effect.

Three trustees opposed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order earlier on Oct. 1 requiring older students and school staff be fully inoculated by July 2022 and younger students receive the COVID-19 vaccine by January 2023.

But the Del Norte Unified School District board on Thursday, along with Superintendent Jeff Harris, focused their energy on ensuring religious, personal and medical exemptions to those vaccine requirements remain in effect.

However, Harris refuted a handful of public comments about the exemptions being about choice.

“Exemptions in the state of California has never just been about ‘I don’t want it because I don’t want it,’” he said. “The exemptions are very specific in law about a personal belief that’s a deeply-held personal belief that the person has a history of exhibiting. For a religious bleief, that person must be actively involved in a religion or a religious practice that prohibits or impedes (vaccine), and also medical. No matter what, if the Legislature were able to remove the personal and religious belief exemption, the medical exemption would always be there.”

On Oct. 1, Newsom announced that the COVID-19 vaccine will be added to the list of inoculations K12 students must get to attend in-person school, both public and private. On Oct. 18, about 20 percent of DNUSD’s student body participated in a walkout protesting that order, according to Harris.

According to Harris, on a typical Monday roughly 300 students are out.

If Del Norte Unified School District's enrollment dropped by 350 students next year, it could lose $4 million, according to Assistant Superintendent Jeff Napier.

On Thursday, Harris said people have already quit over the requirement to undergo COVID-19 testing. Others indicated they’ll no longer be working for DNUSD come July 1, he said.

Harris also noted that, though students are required to be vaccinated against a number of diseases, such as measles, mumps and rubella and hepatitis B, teachers aren’t required to get flu shots or a tuberculosis vaccine anymore. Now, he said, teachers just have to sign an affidavit stating they haven’t been in contact with anyone with tuberculosis.

Moreover, in 2016, the state Legislature removed religious and personal belief exemptions for existing inoculations, Harris said. A California doctor has to sign off on a medical exemption and that has to be entered into the California Immunization Registry, he said.

Religious and personal belief exemptions, along with medical exemptions, are still in place for new vaccines unless the Legislature removes them, Harris said.

There’s no proposed legislation calling for the removal of those exemptions, yet, but Harris said it wouldn’t surprise him if “something’s being drafted.” He urged the Board of Trustees to act before they’re fighting against a bill.

“If this is something you as a board want to do, thinking about the strategic impact if it is nipped in the bud, it costs $15,000 to produce a bill on average,” Harris said. “If this is nipped in the bud, the bill doesn’t get done. Once the bill is there, there’s buy-in, there’s skin in the game and now you’re fighting against a bill.”

DNUSD Board of Trustees President Angela Greenough, who represents Trustee Area 2, said that while there hasn’t yet been a bill that would remove vaccine exemptions, there was a bill proposing a statewide vaccine mandate.

California Assembly Bill 455 was a transportation bill, Oakland Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks sought to include language requiring customers at a bar, gym, hotel, event center or sports arena to show proof of being fully vaccinated.

“Documents of this proposal leaked out to different political organizations,” Greenough said. “The news got hold of it. One politician received 48,000 calls, ‘do not make a statewide vaccine passport, leave it back to local communities,’ and the wording was dropped.”

Greenough also brought up requirements from Oakland Unified School District that their older students be vaccinated by Jan. 1 or they would be unenrolled, saying these orders scared her.

“We’re having schools putting a free public education on the line in order to be vaccinated or you don’t get it,” Greenough said. “It is one thing for a parent to say, ‘I’m going to take the vaccine for myself.’ It’s another when you’re asking to put their child in front of it and say, ‘Do it for your kid.’”

Greenough’s colleague, Trustee Area 4 representative Charlaine Mazzei said it’s confusing to the public to bring up what’s happening in other parts of the state with regard to COVID-19 vaccines. She said she didn’t want to see a post on Facebook stating that DNUSD was talking about mandating inoculations.

But, Mazzei said, urging Legislators to allow personal, religious and medical exemptions to remain is a good balance when speaking for “both constituencies.”

Mazzei also brought a counterargument to those staff who stated they would quit rather than be forced to get the COVID vaccine.

“There are staff who don’t want to go to work with people who are unvaccinated, who don’t want to have kids in classrooms who are unvaccinated — they’re concerned about their safety,” Mazzei said. “There’s nothing that’s going to make everybody happy, but the place where we might have power, the place where we might have the ability to influence is getting the Legislature to leave in those exemptions and trying to make clear that the exemptions need to be in place.”

During public comment, one staff member, Jamie Franklin, who also has children in DNUSD schools, said her students would have participated in the Oct. 18 walkout, but they didn’t want to miss out on sports.

“My question is, have you guys thought that if it is mandated, that we don’t have a choice, how are we going to teach the kids that will be left or take care of the kids that are going to stay?” Franklin asked.

Jessica Curry, who said she has two young children with a genetic disease, said she’s worried about what the COVID-19 vaccine will do to them. Even her children’s doctors don’t know how the inoculation will affect them.

“I get it, if you want people to get vaccinated, that’s their personal choice and if my son’s teacher decides to do that, that’s fine,” he said. “If my son’s teacher gives him COVID that’s not his problem, that’s mine as a parent. I would never hold it against a teacher, a staff member or anybody else because it will happen. Stuff happens.”

Del Norte Teachers Association president Marshall Jones said his classroom was shut down four times because of a student coming into contact with COVID. Pointing out that 700 children have died of the disease nationwide, he said the pandemic is “something to get through just like we got through the tidal wave.”

“This is tearing us apart,” he said. “What we need to do is obey what the state is saying. If there are religious exemptions, let them be known. If there are personal reasons and you put that in a letter and let people make that choice, let them make that choice. But we need this community to pull together, and this is tearing us apart.”

Harris said he would draft a letter and send each trustees a copy, urging them to send any recommendations they have back to them. It is expected to come before the entire Board of Trustees for discussion in November, he said.


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