BUSD puts staff vaccine mandate on hold, rescinds student vax-or-test rule

Reversing course, the Berkeley school board rescinded a vaccine-or-test policy for students and put a vaccine mandate for employees on hold at its Wednesday meeting.

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Parent Jaclyn Lee checks in child Niko Lee for vaccination at Rosa Parks Elementary on Nov. 13, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Update, June 15: The Berkeley school board voted unanimously at its June 15 meeting to postpone a vaccine mandate for district employees and rescind a vaccine-or-test rule for students.

Original post, June 14: With statewide vaccine mandates no longer in sight, Berkeley Unified will likely walk back its own vaccine policies, postponing a vaccine mandate for district employees and rescinding a vaccine-or-test rule for students.

The two policy changes are expected to be approved at Wednesday’s school board meeting. The board reviewed the policies at a June 1 meeting and they have been added to the consent calendar, which means the board will most likely approve them without a discussion.

This fall, Gov. Gavin Newsom said California students would soon have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend school. Many districts, including BUSD, designed policies in step with California’s. Now that talk of a vaccine mandate has stalled, BUSD joins several districts, including Oakland Unified, in walking back their policies.

BUSD’s vaccine-or-test policy took effect in January, requiring students to get vaccinated or tested weekly for the coronavirus. The policy was designed as an “on-ramp” for the California student vaccine mandate, which was scheduled to take effect in January or July, pending full vaccine approval by the FDA.

In April, the California Department of Public Health announced that a vaccine mandate would take effect “no sooner” than July 1, 2023. On the same day, a state senator dropped a bill requiring students to be vaccinated and eliminating a personal belief exemption in the process.

“[I]t appears that legislative efforts to require COVID-19 vaccination to attend school have slowed,” Superintendent Brent Stephens wrote in a memo that accompanies the policy removing the vaccine-or-test rule. “The recession of this policy permits BUSD to align with this development at the state level.”

In the fall, unvaccinated BUSD students will no longer be required to get tested weekly, though the district still “encourage[s]” vaccination. About 80% of BUSD students 12 years of age and older are vaccinated against COVID-19.

The board will also roll back its employee vaccine mandate, which, when it passed, required all BUSD employees to get a COVID-19 shot by April or risk losing their jobs the following year. About 92% of staff are currently vaccinated, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.

The new policy will extend the timeline of the employee vaccine mandate to align with the state’s, which has not been determined.

Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately described the consent calendar. Items on the consent calendar are approved without a discussion, not without a vote.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.