First published in the Oct. 9 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
After imposing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees last month, the Burbank Unified School District shifted the conversation this week to possibly extending a similar requirement for eligible students.
Any decision by the district, however, appeared to have been rendered moot by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement last week that the state would become the first in the nation to implement a vaccine mandate for all students.
“We recognize good enough never is and that’s why we recognize our responsibility to do more,” Newsom said in San Francisco last week. “We are mindful that we still have work to do. We are humbled by the challenge, but we want to get this thing done. We want to end this pandemic. We are all exhausted by it.”
The governor added that the mandate wouldn’t take effect until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approved the vaccine for each age group. The FDA has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for individuals 16 and older and has given emergency authorization for those 12 to 15. Pfizer-BioNTech recently submitted data and is seeking emergency authorization from the FDA that would allow children ages 5 to 11 to be vaccinated.
Los Angeles and Culver City Unified School Districts have issued vaccine mandates for age groups with full vaccine approval. LAUSD went a step further, requiring vaccines for students 12 and older.
The Burbank school board added the topic as an agenda item for discussion, and had asked staff a month ago to gather information regarding the possible vaccine mandate. More than a dozen BUSD employees and stakeholders visited City Hall chambers to speak out against the mandate at the board meeting on Thursday.
“I think mandating a vaccine alone is not the way,” Burbank resident Max Sinovoi told the board. “There has to be a choice. There needs to be a choice for people if you don’t want [the vaccine].”
Others expressed their distrust in the government and what they said is a lack of information in possible long-term side effects from the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states such side effects are “extremely unlikely,” including the small number of reported cases of myocarditis and pericarditis in adolescents and young adults.
“These reports are rare and the known and potential benefits of COVID-19 vaccination outweigh the known and potential risks, including the possible risk of myocarditis or pericarditis,” the CDC has stated on its website.
Superintendent Matt Hill and the board reiterated that they must adhere to state and county public health guidelines, including the upcoming mandate for schoolchildren that Newsom announced.
Steve Ferguson empathized with those opposing the mandate, but said that the safety of everyone is at the forefront of all elected leaders. He added that Newsom “is driving this car” and that the district doesn’t “need to drive it any faster as we focus on an employee mandate and executing that.”
Board President Steve Frintner said he’s never seen such divisiveness on a medical issue in his lifetime, and that though he understands people’s distrust in the government, he does not understand not believing in science.
“You trusted the science because you figured they were trying to help us,” he said. “I still have that outlook. Everyone seems to have their own idea of what’s the truth and that’s part of the problem. There used to be a standard of what was true and what was opinion. I am not a scientist. I am not a doctor, but as an elected official, we are sometimes put in a position of having to make a decision on what we believe is best for our students and our staff. And when we do that, we try to find the sources we believe to be reliable. Right now, yes, I believe the vaccine is doing good things and we are lucky to have it.”
John Paramo, assistant superintendent of educational services, said he discussed the possibility of a mandate with associated student body leaders from each high school and learned that they were in favor of it because they feared of reverting back to virtual instruction. Paramo said that he also heard from at least one student at each school that expressed interest in being vaccinated but could not because their parents would not allow them to do so.
BUSD has managed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus with no transmission on campus so far and only 163 confirmed cases among students so far this year. The district has 15,312 students across 22 schools, and more than 92% of employees are vaccinated.
Hill said that 153 employees have not been inoculated and only have a few weeks to do so. If they decline the shot and do not qualify for religious or medical exemption, then “we will see some staffing changes at our schools.”
Hill said the district has nearly spent all of the funding received for COVID-19 and will have to pause testing after next week until BUSD can secure more funding.