School vaccine mandate cranks up strong feelings in Orange County
Some parents say it's about time. Others are outraged. Still others are afraid for the youngest kids.
October 1, 2021 at 6:42 p.m.
Some love it; others hate it so much they might change their children’s education in order to resist it.
Either way, when news came Friday that the state will require students to get a coronavirus vaccine to attend school – similar to the rules already in place for polio, mumps and several other diseases – Orange County parents and educators offered reactions shaped by the science and politics of the pandemic.
Some supporters described the mandate as a necessary and overdue step to slowing the spread of the coronavirus enough that it becomes a manageable health risk, similar to the seasonal flu.
“I don’t think COVID is going away,” said Christine Wessel, a San Clemente attorney and mother of a 10-year-old fifth-grader.
“But the risk of serious illness and hospitalization is much lower if you are vaccinated than it is if you’re not vaccinated. That’s what the science has shown us,” Wessel said. “And the only way we’re going to be able to protect our kids and our teachers and our community is by getting enough people to be vaccinated that it becomes a less serious issue.
“I’m just frustrated that we have to wait a full quarter to get this started,” she added.
But for some other parents, particularly of the youngest students, the vaccine mandate raises health questions that, in their view, reach beyond the pandemic’s well-worn political and cultural divides.
“It makes me mad that this is being forced,” said Rose Zepeda, 31, a Huntington Beach mother of two girls, ages 5 and 13, who currently attend schools in the Ocean View School District.
“We don’t hate vaccines,” Zepeda said. “I’m vaccinated. My husband is vaccinated.” She said her older daughter also is vaccinated.
“But we’re in a limbo right now,” she added. “It’s bad to be unvaccinated, but I don’t know that it’s totally safe for the youngest kids. And my youngest is too little to be experimented on.”
Zepeda said if she’s still wary about vaccine safety when school starts next year, she’ll consider homeschooling her younger child, who currently is in kindergarten.
“We know that’s a commitment,” Zepeda said. “But we’d do it.”
The mandate will be applied to different grade groups at different times, and only after the Food and Drug Administration has approved vaccines for children. By July 2022 the mandate is expected to apply to all California students, in public and private schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Public schools will be required to offer alternative instruction for students who don’t, or can’t, get vaccinated.
A similar vaccine mandate – calling for proof of vaccination or weekly negative COVID-19 testing – is already set to apply to California teachers starting Oct. 15.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who last month overwhelmingly beat back a recall effort that was based at least in part on his response to the pandemic, described the new vaccine rule as a key step to returning to the freedoms of non-pandemic life.
“We want to end this pandemic,” Newsom said. “We are all exhausted by it.”
But Orange County has seen some of the most vocal opposition to business closures, mask requirements and other pandemic health rules. And some local politicians said Friday that the mandate will be a hot-button topic for many of their supporters.
Supervisor Don Wagner, who has been critical of the state’s pandemic mandates and supported the recall of Gov. Newsom, expects a big crowd when the Board of Supervisors meets Tuesday. Many who come, he said, won’t be happy with the new vaccine rules.
“I’m going to agree with a lot of what they’re going to have to say,” Wagner said. Though Wagner said he is vaccinated and he supports vaccines in general, he also believes “parents should be allowed to make the final decision.”
But some vaccine supporters suggested they also should be free to not be exposed to the disease, much as sober drivers can expect some protection from drunk drivers.
And some people who live or work in communities hardest hit by COVID-19 said the harsh experiences of last winter, and the recent delta surge, make it easier to skip the political debate and accept the new vaccine rule.
“Our ZIP codes were among the highest (for case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths) during the peak of the pandemic,” said Fermin Leal, spokesman for the Santa Ana Unified School District, which has about 44,000 students. “So our parents have been generally more supportive of vaccines and masks and other health rules.”
Leal noted that about 2,000 students in Santa Ana Unified are enrolled in the district’s online learning academy, which was offered this year when masks were required to attend in-class instruction. But many of those students, he said, are taking classes online because they don’t think current health rules are tough enough.
“There haven’t been as many anti-masking movements in our district as you’ve seen in other communities,” Leal said.
Though serious COVID-19 was not common in children when the pandemic started last year, the rise of the new delta variant – and the return to in-class instruction – has changed that dynamic nationally and locally.
As many as 1 in 4 new coronavirus cases nationally involve people younger than 30. And, to date, more than 4.8 million Americans age 18 or younger have been diagnosed with COVID-19, though they still account for less than 1% of all coronavirus-related deaths, according to federal data.
In Orange County, public schools have reported 5,653 positive cases among students, teachers and staff in the seven weeks since the academic year started, according to the county Health Care Agency.
Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the county’s deputy health officer, said the county’s response to the new vaccine rule will be to continue offering vaccine clinics in the most vulnerable communities. Many parents, she said, will be able to get their children inoculated by their pediatrician or family doctor or at a pharmacy or community clinic.
Among OC’s 12- to 17-year olds, she said, 66% have already received at least one dose of a vaccine.