A health care worker gets ready to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to a La Costa Glen Retirement Community resident. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Though public school leaders near and far are pushing for greater access to the coronavirus vaccine for school employees and many tout the vaccines as essential for school reopenings, few are talking about making vaccines a mandate.

The importance of the vaccine in solving the crisis and getting kids back to school campuses cannot be overstated, said Dr. Sayone Thihalolipavan, a medical consultant for San Diego County’s health and human services agency.

Other safety measures are great, but Thihalolipavan told local K-12 school officials during a Jan. 12 online meeting vaccines are “how we get back to normal. This is a key tool in that process of getting to that light at the end of the tunnel.”

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in December employers could lawfully require the vaccine of workers, with some exceptions. The state sets requirements for vaccines for school children, including the measles, Hepatitis B and polio, among others.

School reopening agreements bargained with San Diego Unified’s teacher’s union thus far have not mentioned vaccine requirements.

“The mandatory vaccination of students is up to the state,” San Diego Unified spokeswoman Maureen Magee wrote in an email. As for employees, Magee said the vaccine remains voluntary but “if vaccination rates are low when voluntary, the superintendent would refer the issue of having less-than-optimal vaccination rates to our district physician for review with our panel of scientific experts from UC San Diego … to assess the potential impact of varying rates of staff vaccinations.”

Kisha Borden, president of the 6,500-member San Diego Education Association, told Voice of San Diego discussions with San Diego Unified over an employee vaccine mandate “would be pointless” at this stage, and union members have not been surveyed on the issue.

“The state is having trouble obtaining the supply necessary to vaccinate those who are currently eligible to receive a dose,” Borden wrote in an email. “We have not had any discussions with the District around mandating vaccines as it would be pointless given that the District would be unable to obtain the supply necessary to vaccinate all staff. Our focus has been on following the recommendations of experts to get case rates to a level where it would (be) safe to slowly reopen schools.”

SDEA union officials have emphasized the importance of COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment and other safety measures aside from vaccines in member communications in recent months.

Borden told KPBS in December the union would negotiate to keep all teachers employed even if they decline the vaccine.

Borden signaled her support for keeping vaccines optional at a California Senate education hearing Jan. 21.

“My ask is that our elected leaders focus on making sure educators are able to receive the vaccine, if desired, as soon as possible and combine that effort with adequate funding for the ongoing testing for our students and school staff that is necessary,” Borden said.

Locally, school health professionals like nurses are eligible for vaccines now, while broader school employee ranks will be included in the next wave of vaccines – unless they meet other criteria already, like being at least 65 years old. In smaller California counties, where earlier vaccine waves moved quickly through tinier populations, educators are already eligible.

Eric Joyce, vice president of the Oceanside Unified school board and an education specialist in the Encinitas Union School District, said special education workers should be eligible now, in the earliest wave of vaccines.

“They merit unique consideration because of several factors which may increase their exposure to COVID-19 and the necessity of bringing back students with significant learning, behavioral and emotional needs as soon as safely possible,” Joyce wrote in an email.

Dr. Howard Taras, a UC San Diego pediatrician advising San Diego Unified, told San Diego board members earlier this month there is hope vaccines for all school employees will begin in February and those who want one will be able to get one ideally by April. Taras said school officials should expect to begin next school year with vaccinated staff and unvaccinated students, with other precautions like distancing and masks still in place for those on campus.

San Diego Unified school board president Richard Barrera also spoke at the California Senate hearing Jan. 21 and expressed eagerness for school personnel to get vaccinated, so much so he endorses any educator holdouts who want a vaccine before returning to school campuses, calling such a stance “entirely appropriate.” Barrera also said, “we are close” to some kind of agreement “that would speed up getting our educators vaccinated.”

“We need to get our educators vaccinated as quickly as possible,” Barrera said at the hearing. “When it is safe to reopen, we will reopen at that point, when there’s the vaccines, when there’s the funding to do the full testing that public health experts advise us to do, and when the case rates have come down to a point that it will actually be safe for our students and our staff to reopen.”

For Barrera, safety metrics put out by UC San Diego in August, which mirrored the county health triggers, are the goal: Namely, a seven-day average case rate of no more than a seven cases per 100,000 population, 8 percent test positivity rate and available intensive care unit capacity over 20 percent, among other things.

As of Monday, San Diego County was still missing the mark. The county average COVID-19 case rate was nearly 68 per 100,000, test positivity was averaging 12.6 percent and intensive care units were 83 percent full, leaving 17 percent capacity available, according to county officials.


San Diego Unified school campuses have remained almost entirely shuttered this school year with few opportunities for in-person services for only select vulnerable student groups, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Data reported to the San Diego County Office of Education shows nearly 99 percent of district students are schooling entirely from a distance.

Amid the closure, San Diego Unified School District officials have urged employees and others to get vaccinated, but stop short of any mandate talk.

Barrera told state legislators last week the district has made all its reopening plans in partnership with the district’s unions – and it is likely any contemplated employee mandate would be bargained first.

Presidents of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have shied away from weighing in on the possibility of a mandate.

The California Teachers Association has advocated for COVID-19 testing to be mandatory for safe school reopenings, not vaccines. An association representative at the recent Senate hearing talked of vaccine “opportunities” while emphasizing their value.

“Vaccinations are our schools’ hope,” said Lori Easterling, legislative relations manager for the California Teachers Association. “Vaccines need to be part of the school reopening conversations. Schools need a coordinated vaccination plan so that staff, students, parents, guardians and household members who are essential workers or elderly have timely and accessible vaccination opportunities.”

Tristan Brown, legislative advocate for the California Federation of Teachers, also flagged vaccine accessibility as a major point of concern at the hearing.

“We must have a plan for in-person instruction that works in conjunction with vaccine availability at a point where case rates are at a safe zone and also in conjunction with ICU capacity,” Brown said.


Though San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten and Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner have acted in lockstep for much of the pandemic in a lot of ways, Beutner has gone further in his vaccine remarks lately – especially when it comes to kids.

Beutner said children will be required to get the vaccine in his district once it’s available to them – though it may be a while. He has not made similar declarations about employee vaccines, but emphasized the value of employee vaccinations in a video address Monday. Beutner has also been publicly pushing for schools to become COVID-19 vaccine distribution sites to speed up their reopening efforts.

San Diego Unified trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne asked Marten to turn the district office into a vaccine distribution site for its roughly 13,600 school employees.

“It’s at the (vaccine) delivery point where we are having the problem,” Whitehurst-Payne said at the Jan. 12 board meeting. “I’ve said this to the superintendent, so it is nothing new, on the second of January I said, ‘Why can’t we just open up on the lawn here at the district office and start putting it in people’s arms? We know all the people in the district. We have all the information about them. Just put it in their arms. Use something to separate them out on the lawn so that they are not having contact with others with a mask and so forth.’”

Magee, the district spokeswoman, said San Diego Unified is in talks with UC San Diego and health care partner VEBA about school personnel vaccination sites, and Marten has asked them to consider the district office, “along the lines of what the county has set up with UC San Diego Health at Petco Park.” She said schools will also be considered in the future.

District officials are also talking to San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria about expediting “the vaccination of teachers and other staff necessary to the reopening of schools as soon as they are cleared to receive the vaccine,” Magee said. But for now, “the fastest way to get our workforce vaccinated would be through the existing health care infrastructure.”

While no county vaccine distribution sites are operating at schools at present, county spokeswoman Sarah Sweeney said some schools are under consideration, and “these would serve as locations where anyone eligible could get a vaccine.” For now, school health care workers seeking a COVID-19 vaccine are advised to reach out to their doctor or to get an appointment at a county vaccine center, like Petco Park.

San Diego Unified is continuing to roll out COVID-19 testing to more schools through a partnership with UC San Diego – though few staff and students are on campus to receive them.

San Diego County was operating four COVID-19 testing sites specifically for school personnel late last year but has since closed them for lack of use. County testing sites for the broader population remain open, Sweeney said.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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