A pop-up clinic near Ed Roberts Campus offers free vaccines against COVID-19. Credit: Pete Rosos

The Berkeley school board unanimously passed a policy requiring students to get vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing by next semester. The policy includes a vaccine mandate for Berkeley Adult School students and those attending indoor extra-curricular events.

The policy, approved six days after California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide vaccine mandate for students and teachers, will take effect Jan. 3, 2022.

California’s mandate will kick in a semester after the FDA fully approves the COVID-19 vaccine, which could be as soon as Jan. 1 or as late as July 1. BUSD’s policy does not depend on full FDA approval.

“Our proposed policy provides an on-ramp to the state’s vaccine mandate, and we expect it to result in increased vaccinations in our student population in the meantime,” said Ty Alper, school board president.

Currently, 80% of eligible students at Berkeley Unified are vaccinated, though there is significant variation by race. At the high school, 91% of white and Asian students are fully vaccinated, compared with 54% of Black students and 43% of multi-ethnic students.

Two weeks ago, the school board discussed a similar policy that included a vaccine mandate for student-athletes over 16 years old, with no testing option. The mandate proved controversial, and after further discussion at a policy subcommittee meeting, was cut from the policy.

Members of the school board hope that the testing option gives the school district time to encourage vaccination without requiring that students enter independent study if they are not vaccinated, which will eventually be required under the state’s policy.

BUSD plans to make vaccines available to the school community through free clinics at Longfellow Middle School and Berkeley High, including several planned in October. The district is launching a vaccine education campaign that features student-leaders like Anjuna Mascarenhas-Swan, the student director on the school board. The district intends to partner with Berkeley teachers, community organizations and the city of Berkeley.

The vaccine-or-test policy applies to students over 12 years old and will apply to children ages 5 to 11 once the FDA approves the vaccine for emergency use. Then, younger students will have four months before they’re required to show proof of vaccination or get tested weekly. Surveillance testing will continue to be available at the elementary schools.

The vaccine mandate for Berkeley Adult School students allows for medical and religious exemptions.

Matt Meyer, president of Berkeley’s teachers union, called the policy “a common sense interim solution while we wait for the full mandate to kick in” at the board meeting. Meyer said he fully supports the state mandate that requires students and school staff to get vaccinated.

During public comment, BUSD parent Val Cipollone accused the district of “freewheeling on public health policy,” asking why the district was forging its own path on vaccination policy. School Board Director Ana Vasudeo responded by saying the school district is working with “public health officials at the state, county, and city level here in Berkeley” when creating its public health policies. Berkeley Public Health has not commented publicly on the district’s vaccination policy.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that the policy allows for medical and religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate for Adult School students, not for the vaccine-or-test rule.

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,...