Hours of lively public debate went on Thursday evening before the Santa Barbara Unified School District board approved a vaccine mandate for all staff.
It is the first district in Santa Barbara County to do so.
The decision eliminates the alternative of COVID-19 testing for those who choose not to be vaccinated.
All those employees must provide proof of their first shot by Oct. 1 and the second dose, if applicable, by Nov. 1. Currently about 88% of the district’s regular 1,673 staff are vaccinated.
The change was supported in a letter that the board received from Dr. Henning Ansorg, the Santa Barbara County public health officer, and Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, the county public health department director.
A spokeswoman for county Supervisor Das Williams said Mr. Williams supports the vaccine as an important part of keeping schools open for in-person instruction.
Before the vote, about two-thirds of the 70-plus public commentators Thursday opposed the measure. They said they have the right to make personal health choices. Some of those were district employees (including teachers), and others included parents of schoolchildren and students, mainly of high school age. They cautioned against policies based on fear and noted that vaccinated individuals can still get and transmit COVID-19.
They questioned the need for vaccines as well as the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations. Some said the mandate would be unconstitutional.
One opponent got right to the point.
“You are on a slippery slope, and you are just plain wrong,” Celia Campbell-Lemere told the board during the virtual meeting.
But some commentators, including parents of schoolchildren and a student, urged the board to adopt the mandate for the safety of all and to ensure in-person instruction. They noted that staff should get vaccinated for the sake of students, especially those 11 and younger who currently can’t get vaccinated.
“In order to protect those who cannot be vaccinated and those for whom the vaccine does not result in a strong robust immune response, they need to be surrounded by folks who are vaccinated,” said Dr. Charles Fenzi, CEO and chief medical officer of the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics. He urged the board to adopt the resolution.
“My kids and most of their classmates are too young to get the vaccine, but their teachers can, which is very important for our elementary students,” Brian Conk said. “Even one unvaccinated elementary school teacher is not acceptable. … My kids are required to have over 20 shots to attend school, and it is not extreme or abnormal to require that you have one (vaccine).”
Registered nurse Sarada Lewis, who has children attending Santa Barbara Unified schools, urged the board to vote in favor of the vaccine. She noted the Pfizer vaccine is now fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
She said she was grateful that her 12-year-old child attending La Colina Junior High School was vaccinated, but felt she had to transfer her 11-year-old daughter from Roosevelt Elementary School to Riviera Ridge School, a nearby private school where staff is required to be vaccinated.
“We believe in science. We understand the data,” Ms. Lewis said.
Jason Prystowsky noted the vaccine is safe. “You have a responsibility to keep children healthy and safe. Please do that. Please vote for the resolution.”
Irene Morales said she opposes the vaccine mandate, even though she is vaccinated. “I believe in our fundamental right to choose what we put in our body. Mandating our co-workers and staff to be mandated does not allow us to practice our fundamental right to choose.”
Paul Rooney, president of Civil Service Employees Association Chapter 37, said he opposed the school board taking away staff’s right to choose whether to get the vaccine.
“I am a student DP (Dos Pueblos) High School,” Lucy Oliver told the board, advising members that the mandate would put her mother, a teacher, in a difficult position. “My mom would lose her job, a job she loves.”
Another student said it would be a shame if teachers lose their jobs because they exercise their medical right not to get the vaccine.
Biology teacher Sierra Perry warned the district would lose good faculty if the resolution is adopted, leaving a negative impact on students. She noted she has complied with the COVID-testing requirement even though vaccinated staff don’t have to follow the same rule.
“If your vaccine works, why do I need one?” she said. “If your vaccine doesn’t work, why do I need one?”
But Devin Lewis, a junior high student, expressed concern that if the pandemic isn’t brought under control, students would have to go back to virtual learning. “I don’t want to go back to online school.”
He noted that nearly all of COVID-19 patients in emergency rooms are unvaccinated people, according to CDC statistics.
“I think because of that, you should vote yes,” he said.
But adult opponent Michelle Saralegui called the vaccines too experimental.
“I’m sure you heard the phrase: ‘My body, my choice,’” she said. “Please don’t give in and give up our rights.
“I’ve worked at this district since 1987,” she said. “You’re going to lose a lot of valuable people.”