Even as America's overall COVID-19 death toll shoots north of 765,000, one population subcategory remains comparatively—and remarkably—impervious to the lethal virus: kids.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there had been only 605 U.S. deaths involving COVID among children under the age of 18 as of November 17. That compares to 1,105 pediatric deaths over the same time span involving pneumonia, an infection for which the public education system has not been radically reorganized.
And yet the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the country's second-largest, is poised to bar from schoolhouse grounds as many as 44,000 students who failed to meet the district's November 21 deadline for getting a first vaccination shot, according to numbers crunched by the Los Angeles Times.
The LAUSD, which established the vaccine mandates for students 12 and over in late September, a month into the school year, announced Monday that 79 percent of eligible students had either received or scheduled their first jab, or qualified for a medical exemption. (Unlike LAUSD teachers, students are ineligible for a religious exemption.)
The hard deadline for a second shot is December 19, three weeks before the new school semester begins. All students who don't comply will be shunted into a remote, independent study program called City of Angels, which (per the L.A. Times) "has been beset by staffing shortages and instability. Parents of students with special needs have been particularly upset at the limitations of the program—and many students waited weeks before being able to receive any meaningful instruction." At a current 16,000 students, City of Angels could be forced to triple in size overnight.
Remote learning, which was imposed upon most California schoolkids from March 2020 to August 2021 despite the Golden State's famously temperate climate and generous outdoor school space, has been a well-documented educational disaster. A November 14 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper on the pandemic and test scores led by Brown University economist Emily Oster found that (in Oster's words) "Bottom line: losses are big, and much bigger with less in-person school."
Yet several California school districts, affecting an estimated 350,000 kids combined, are gearing up to re-sentence their unvaccinated students to remote learning dysfunction. Piedmont's vax mandate deadline was November 17; Culver City's was November 19, San Diego students aged 16 and over have until December 20, Oakland kids hear the vax bell ring January 1, and West Contra Costa follows on January 3. Sacramento and Hayward at least will allow unvaccinated students to test their way into staying in class.
Each of these mandates was adopted after the school year already began; California will have a statewide student vaccine mandate for the 2022-23 year. Lawsuits challenging the student mandates in Los Angeles and San Diego are working their way through the courts; meanwhile, there have been at least two days of statewide student walkouts in protest.
As in the 2020-21 shutdowns of in-person learning, the vaccine mandates will hit poor and minority students hardest. Thus extending the paradox that the polities and bureaucracies most likely to wage politics in the name of "equity" are embracing pandemic policies that disproportionately harm the very people they claim to protect.
As the L.A. Times put it last month in a thorough analysis of the pandemic's effects on schools, there has been a "particularly alarming…impact on L.A. students, [with] deep drops in assessment scores or below grade-level standing in key areas of learning. Black, Latino and other vulnerable children have been particularly hard hit."
Given that California public school teachers and staff are required to be vaccinated, that unvaccinated kids have been stubbornly resistant to even the Delta strain of COVID-19, and that the LAUSD's weekly testing regime of all students and staff alike continues to show a microscopic positivity rate, an obvious question arises: Who, exactly, is being protected by mandatory student vaccinations?
If the answer is the kids themselves, that shows an inability to process risk, and to fully appreciate the provable damage of remote learning. If the answer is their families, surely having unvaccinated kids around the house more, instead of attending mostly COVID-free schools, is more of a danger. If the answer is the community or society writ large, then that's a tacit admission that we're punishing noncompliant students (as opposed to, say, noncompliant members of more powerful public sector unions) because we can.
Are California's student mandates increasing vaccination rates? A little bit so far (though this will increase as the stay-or-go deadlines approach). LAUSD's 79 percent vax-or-exemption rate compares to an overall one-shot state vaccination rate for 12-17-year-olds of 75 percent, which ranks eighth in the country, between Maryland and Virginia, according to the Mayo Clinic. (The national 12-17 rate is 60 percent.) Where does the state rank for vaccinating 18-64-year-olds? Also eighth, at 88 percent, between Pennsylvania and Vermont.
So the heavy-handed requirement is producing marginal rate-gains thus far at the imminent cost of harming the education of scores of thousands of comparatively poor and minority students. To which California's dominant political class responds, If we can save even one life….
"There are 10 other vaccinations that your kids get for measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough," Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said earlier this month, fresh off his resounding victory against a recall effort centered around his strict pandemic policies. "I find it rather just extraordinary and fascinating some of these politicians out there that are just outraged that somehow their freedom has been impacted yet they're doing nothing about the previous mandates that they are accountable for….The politics around this are disturbing to me. Lives are quite literally at risk."