First published in the Sept. 4 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
With the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine officially approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Burbank Unified School District is following the lead of other educational institutions and districts in requiring all employees to be vaccinated.
The BUSD Board of Education stood firm on its decision, voting 5-0 to adopt the resolution despite pleas from some who work with the district opposing the vaccine mandate.
“What it comes down to ultimately is we have to make a decision as a school district, and the governing board has to make the decision of how do we keep all our students, employees and community safe based on all the information,” Superintendent Matt Hill said.
Board President Steve Frintner echoed Hill and said such a measure is necessary for the health not only of the students, but the city.
“This isn’t going to be the silver bullet that ends this all for us, but I believe this is the next step,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s the first step because we’ve been trying and we’ve been doing a lot already. This is the definitive next step we need to take to try and maintain as much control on the health and well-being of our students, our teachers, our staff and our community.”
By law, individuals can be exempt from getting the vaccine for reasons including medical condition, disability or religion. In Burbank, only fully vaccinated employees will be allowed on campus beginning Oct. 22 unless a district-authorized exemption or urgent accommodation has been obtained by an employee.
A few employees voiced their distrust about the vaccine and felt that getting inoculated against COVID-19 violates their freedom of choice.
“We have only been working back in the office for about a month now and the changes that have been implemented have been nothing short of medical tyranny,” said Michelle Otters, who works for the BUSD.
Local educator Jon Sarna said he knows colleagues who are scared that they’ll lose their job because of such a mandate and asked that the board be more understanding of those who oppose their views on the vaccine.
“I stand before you today to tell you that there are people working in this district who don’t feel understood,” he said. “We are a district that encourages and promotes and encourages my job of teaching empathy and compassion. But I don’t think we’re here doing that if we demand something like this.”
The board did express empathy for the employees who spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting but maintained that vaccinations will keep campuses open and give students in-person instruction with less interruption.
“We need to do all we can in the absence of leadership to lock down these campuses and create safe bubbles for student populations that don’t have a choice. That is our job,” said board member Steve Ferguson. “I respect everybody’s personal views on vaccinations, and I respect your right not to get one if that is your choice, but I do believe that this is a new condition to work with our children, and if you’re free to make the choice to not be vaccinated without medical exemption, without religious exemption, then no, I don’t believe you should be working with our children.
“I hate the idea of losing people, but this community who elected me — and I’m speaking singularly — expect these schools to be functional, and with the amount of spread that is out there right now, they are not. We are not accomplishing, despite our best efforts, our core mission of educating.”
Board members discussed the possibility of going even further with measures to combat COVID-19 by implementing a vaccination requirement for students who are eligible — similar to a move recently made by the Culver City Unified School District. But they felt it was best that the BUSD staff conduct more research and seek legal counsel before the board gets into serious talks of such a mandate.
As of Friday, there have been 101 positive tests for COVID-19 among 15,312 students in the district and eight among employees. Though the number of confirmed cases and positivity rate — which is .05% — are relatively low, they affect a larger number of students due to the health and safety protocols required by Los Angeles County. Nine hundred and seventy-four exposed students and staff members have had to quarantine so far, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard. John Muir Middle School has been most affected with 210 quarantined, followed by Burbank High School with 159.
In looking at the data, Ferguson said he believes the district has done what it can to mitigate transmission of the virus and asked that stakeholders do their part to help keep Burbank schools open.
“This is about as far as we can go next to student vaccine mandates,” Ferguson said about board’s decision. “The next phase of this journey has to be about talking about personal behavior. … To me, [the district’s data from the first two weeks of testing] is pretty conclusive that we are not dealing with a situation of active spread on campus but instead continuing to have external cases acquired from the outside world being brought to campuses and jeopardizing the health and well-being of our students, our staff and our families.”
Ferguson went on to state his disappointment in the Burbank City Council for not doing enough, in his view, to combat the coronavirus.
“The reality is that there are two equality elected bodies in this community, and why? So when one can’t rise to the moment of leadership, the other can. We are standing up,” Ferguson said. “And if you’re a BUSD employee, if you’re a BUSD parent and you’re exhausted from these past few weeks, you’re exhausted because you’re doing the work of community leaders on top of your everyday responsibilities.”