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Los Angeles Students Over 12 Will Need To Be Vaccinated Against COVID By January

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I'm Ailsa Chang in Los Angeles, where the school district here is now the first major public education system in the U.S. to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for its students. The LA Unified School District will require all kids ages 12 and up to be fully vaccinated by January if they are attending class in person. It is among the aggressive moves that this district has taken as the spread of COVID continues raising concerns for students, faculty and parents in this back-to-school season. Joining us now to talk about this new mandate is LA superintendent Megan Reilly.

Welcome.

MEGAN REILLY: It's so nice to be here. Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: Thank you. So can you just tell us what you had been seeing in your schools that prompted the adoption of this new vaccine mandate?

REILLY: The delta variant has been highly concerning to us. This is not a decision that we came to lightly. We have been working with scientists and epidemiologists and pediatricians, frankly, since this pandemic started 18 months ago. But recently, the delta variant has proven to be very highly transmissible, and frankly, there's been an increase in children being affected by it. The toll for vaccines, it's one of the layers, and it is one of the most effective layers in preventing both the severity of cases, infections and hospitalizations.

CHANG: Right. Well, real briefly, how will this mandate work? Like, what are the options for kids who don't get vaccinated? What happens to them?

REILLY: There will be medical exceptions that will be kind of allowed, and we'll look at those. But we do have an independent study program that we have for those that don't get vaccinated or choose not to. If a student has a reasonable accommodation, medical reasons, we are - we will process that and look at that. That's a legitimate reason to not be vaccinated. For all other students, we're asking that they get their vaccinations in the November-December time frame. And that way, by December 19, before they go on winter break, then by January 10 when we come back to school, the students that come back on campus and in person will be fully vaccinated, and it'll be the safest possible environment that we have with all the tools that we have available.

CHANG: I saw that there were some protesters outside the school board vote on this vaccine requirement yesterday. And I'm curious - what have you heard from parents specifically about why they are against the mandate?

REILLY: There are some that are very concerned about, you know, that there is still, you know, an emergency use authorization for the 12- to 16-year-olds. And so again - but they need to understand that the emergency use authorization was one of the most rigorous review cycles for making sure - and it has proven - the vaccines are proven to be safe, effective and helpful in preventing the disease.

CHANG: That said, are you concerned at all about legal challenges to this vaccine mandate? Because a common argument against vaccine mandates in other places is that there should first be a full FDA approval in place for a vaccine. Like, the Pfizer vaccine is still only authorized for emergency use, as you say, on kids between ages 12 and 15. Could that expose the school district to some legal risk here?

REILLY: We expect people to try and, you know, kind of, like, have a legal kind of argument about this. But we feel that we stand on very firm legal authority for mandating it because of the case for the greater safety, both for that individual student to get vaccinated but also for the classroom and the school to provide a high-quality, safe environment for kids to learn. And the best environment is, really, in person.

CHANG: I'm just wondering - you know, you guys have all been back since mid-August. What have you been hearing from students and teachers about this school year so far? Are people quite happy to be back, or is it very stressful?

REILLY: I will say, you know, so last week, I was at one of our - all of our middle schools and high schools, we've got vaccination clinics, voluntary, going. I talked to a student that was getting vaccinated. He's a 12th-grader at one of our high schools. And I asked him how he came to this decision. He was excited about senior year. I'd love to give him a normal senior year that involves prom and graduation in person with his friends. This is their childhood. This is their high school. This is their - whether you're a ninth-grader or 12th-grader, you know, we owe it to our children to give them the safest possible and best childhood and education possible. And I want to give that senior high school student his senior year.

CHANG: Megan Reilly is the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

REILLY: Thank you, Ailsa. I so appreciate you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.