Berkeley High School students arrive on campus on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

School board members agree that students 12 and up should either show proof of vaccination or get tested weekly starting in January 2022. But the board is divided over whether vaccination should be mandated — with no testing option — for student-athletes over 16 years old, for Berkeley Adult School students and at events like prom.

At Sept. 22 school board meeting, Ka’Dijah Brown and Laura Babitt said they opposed any vaccination mandate that didn’t include a testing option. But School Board President Ty Alper, Ana Vasudeo, and Student Director Anjuna Mascarenhas-Swan said they supported the proposal, arguing that it struck the right balance between encouraging vaccination while keeping students in school. Julie Sinai had concerns about how the policy would be implemented.

“McDonald’s has no obligation to serve every resident in Berkeley. We have an obligation to educate Berkeley students.” — Ty Alper, Berkeley school board president

Vasudeo described the proposal as a bold decision to protect students and families. “I think we can’t shy away from our responsibility to keep our students safe, particularly our most vulnerable students because the impact of the pandemic is much harder on their families,” she said.

But racial differences in vaccination rates made Sinai in particular worry that, if implemented poorly, a testing requirement could be stigmatizing for unvaccinated students who are predominantly people of color, comparing it to the stigma associated with free lunch.

“I want to accomplish the goal of getting people vaccinated. The mandate is one tool in the toolbox, but it can’t be the only tool in the toolbox,” Sinai told Berkeleyside after the board meeting.

While 80% of eligible BUSD students are vaccinated, multi-ethnic and Black students have lower rates of vaccination: At the high school, 91% of white and Asian students are fully vaccinated, compared with 54% of Black student and 43% of multi-ethnic students.

“I have reservations about a mandate right now … because the majority of people who are not vaccinated are people of color,” Sinai said.

Sinai would like to see a vaccine-or-test rule that’s accompanied by a robust vaccine education campaign and easy access to vaccines and testing, as well as an effort to make testing confidential.

Mascarenhas-Swan pushed back, saying that because so many students get tested regularly, she doesn’t think a testing requirement would be problematic.

Credit: BUSD

The discussion comes as school districts throughout California are considering their own vaccine rules. Two weeks ago, Los Angeles Unified became the first large school district in the country to require students to be vaccinated by January 2020. Now, Oakland, Hayward, and Piedmont have all voted in favor of vaccine mandates. Vaccination rates are much lower in Oakland than in Berkeley schools, where 82% of eligible students are fully vaccinated. In Oakland, 54% of people ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated and 71% have received one dose of the vaccine.

Superintendent Brent Stephens co-authored the proposed policy with Alper after input from the board’s policy subcommittee meeting, which is composed of Alper and Vasudeo.

The debate over mandates

At the Sept. 22 meeting, a school board that had been mostly united when it came to masking and testing rules showed signs of fissure.

“We understand and value [events like prom] as a part of educational extracurricular experience,” Brown said. “One that should not be taken away if we have the opportunity to make sure that it’s safe through testing.”

Alper said the proposal did not go so far as to mandate vaccination for all students, like Oakland’s policy, so that the district would not deny students the right to an education. “We’re not like a restaurant where we can just not let you in if you refuse to get vaccinated,” Alper said. “McDonald’s has no obligation to serve every resident in Berkeley. We have an obligation to educate Berkeley students.”

Babitt said a vaccine mandate would overstep the school board’s jurisdiction and leave the district vulnerable to lawsuits. A law firm filed a cease and desist order Sept. 13 against Los Angeles Unified for its vaccine mandate.

Already, Dan McDunn, a parent of a high schooler, sent an email to the Berkeley school board threatening legal action if the vaccine mandate were to be implemented for student-athletes. McDunn’s family member died shortly after getting the vaccine and he worries more about complications of the vaccine than about his son contracting the virus. The right thing to do, Babitt said, is wait for California Department of Public Health to issue guidance on vaccination. Berkeley Public Health said it does not have a position on the district’s vaccination policy.

Berkeley’s teachers union overwhelmingly supports the policy, with over 90% of teachers in favor of all aspects of the proposal. “It’s definitely time to take a stronger stance,” Meyer said. “Some of the districts that have the highest number of students that are unvaccinated are putting in these policies, because they’re taking a strong public health stance that this is necessary for them to operate, and it’s necessary for their community.”

Vaccination rates are higher for youth living in the city of Berkeley than they are for Berkeley Unified students. About 80% of eligible students are vaccinated in Berkeley schools, while 92% of Berkeley residents ages 12-17 are fully vaccinated. Students with out-of-district transfer permits make up about 10% of the student body, and vaccination rates are lower in the rest of Alameda County than in Berkeley.

Meyer thinks that a vaccine mandate for specific events and athletes is in line with state public health guidance, which encourages vaccination. “It’s not a very big step for our school board to take,” Meyer said.

Since August, there have been 62 cases of COVID-19 reported in Berkeley schools and zero outbreaks at school sites. Due to the school’s modified quarantine policy, which requires twice-weekly testing for unvaccinated students, very few students have been required to quarantine at home after an exposure. As of Sept. 23, 44 of the district’s 9,000 students were in modified quarantine.

But its testing regiment is time-consuming and costly for BUSD. Meyer hopes that this policy proposal will increase vaccination rates and make implementing exposure protocols more manageable. Under BUSD’s COVID-19 safety plan, unvaccinated students are not required to get tested after an exposure.

Under modified quarantine, student-athletes can continue to attend school but are barred from participating in extra-curricular activities like sports. If more students were vaccinated, Meyer said he thinks the disruption to sports teams would be minimized.

Berkeley parents and youth spoke both in favor and in opposition to the proposed policy during public comment at the school board meeting.

John Becker, a teacher and former vice president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, said he’s strongly in favor of the vaccine requirement, while longtime teacher Tom Fairchild said he’s concerned that a vaccine-or-test rule would “disproportionately affect African American students and staff.”

Chair of Berkeley’s Youth Commission Sam Kaplan-Pettus said he prefers a vaccine mandate for students, but supports the vaccine-or-test policy, too. Last week, the Youth Commission sent a letter to the school board urging them to issue a vaccine mandate.

The policy subcommittee will take the board’s feedback into consideration as it develops a vaccination policy that will go before the school board in a vote. There is not currently a date set for the school board to vote on a policy.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Julie Sinai’s stance on the policy during the Sept. 22 school board meeting. She is not opposed to the vaccine-or-test rule, but wants to see it paired with a vaccination education campaign and easy, confidential access to testing. John Becker’s former title has also been corrected. He was formerly the vice president of the teachers union, not the president.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...