On Aug. 24, the Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) Board of Education considered implementing additional safety measures as more positive cases of COVID-19 are identified among students and staff. Following the Aug. 23 announcement from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for people ages 16 and older, the Board deliberated over policies such as mandatory COVID-19 testing for all students and mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for all eligible students. After a lengthy debate, the Board advised staff to bring back policy related to mandatory testing but stopped short of mandatory vaccines–for now. “I don’t know that I can force that on people that are not willing, and then say they can’t come to a public school,” Board President Rachelle Marcus said of a potential vaccine mandate. “That’s something that makes me very uncomfortable.”
While the Board did not unanimously agree on what measures should be implemented to protect students and staff from the virus, it was clear only that additional safeguards are needed and soon. Parents, too, inundated the public comment period of the meeting, equally making a case for and against compulsory testing and vaccinations.
On Aug. 25, just nine days into the new school year, the District reported 11 positive cases of COVID-19 among students, and two among staff. Of the 10 students who tested positive, nine were at the high school and two at Horace Mann Elementary. Of the staff who tested positive, one was at the high school and the other at Horace Mann.
“Between positive cases and the close contacts, that’s 172 disruptions in eight days no matter where you are or what side you’re on, in eight days, we’ve had 172 disruptions in our classrooms,” BHUSD Superintendent, Dr. Michael Bregy, said. “And that’s disruptive to the entire class. So, our responsibility is to mitigate those disruptions and get back to what we’re supposed to be doing, and that’s providing a high-quality education, and you can’t do that in an environment where you keep getting kids in and out of classrooms.”
Currently, BHUSD does not mandate regular testing or vaccinations, but testing is in place for students who become symptomatic in class. However, the District does offer free daily COVID-19 rapid antigen testing for all symptomatic and non-symptomatic staff and students at various school sites between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
While all Board members agreed that more and potentially obligatory testing would be essential to mitigate the spread of the virus, the cabinet did not reach a conclusive consensus around mandatory vaccinations for the eligible student population.
Fearing a potential onslaught of legal issues, Marcus said “I would love, in a perfect world, to require everyone to get tested. I would require everyone who’s eligible to get vaccinated.”
Marcus later elaborated her thoughts for the Courier. “I am 100 percent in favor of mandatory and weekly testing because I believe we, as a school district, have the legal right to demand that our students to be tested for the health and safety of all our students, faculty, staff, and the overall community at large.” She added, “The multitude of legal issues surrounding compulsory vaccinations, however, makes me less likely to support this approach until such time that we are assured that we will not be facing costly legal battles which will take money out of our General Fund to litigate. Culver City Unified has not yet seen the onslaught of legal claims from parents who oppose this mandate. If other districts felt that these lawsuits would fail in a court of law, I believe we would see many more school districts passing a mandatory vaccine requirement. I strongly believe we need to continue to educate our community about the life saving protections, to a scientific certainty, that vaccinations provide, and to encourage everyone eligible to get vaccinated,” said Marcus.
At the high school level, if a vaccinated student is asymptomatic but tests positive for COVID-19, they can remain at school with a mask. Unvaccinated students who test positive are immediately isolated. “We can impress upon people the importance of being vaccinated, to prevent that type of thing,” Marcus said. “The community needs to wake up and find out that if they want to keep their kids in school, they’ve got to do these things.”
Sympathetic to parents who are concerned about lack of data testing, Board Member Dr. Amanda Stern said: “I stop short of mandating a vaccine at this time.”
“I would be open to having mandated vaccines,” said Board Member Mary Wells. “But I feel like we need to have a better understanding of what that means for us from a legal standpoint and liability standpoint. So, I would be open to having direction to understand that.”
“Whatever adjustments can be made to our testing procedures to help eliminate the number of cases and protect our students and keep our education consistent, I will get behind,” added Board Member Noah Margo.
The one Board member who took an unequivocal stance was Tristen Walker-Shuman. “We need to do compulsory testing,” Walker-Shuman said during the meeting. “In my opinion, we should mandate vaccines for 16 plus. I believe that’s going to happen in the next month anyway.” Walker-Shuman voiced that she would like to see district wide compulsory testing in place by Sept. 15 and mandatory vaccinations in place by Sept. 30. Walker-Shuman maintained that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, should be tested on a regular basis.
As positive COVID-19 cases inching up each day in the District, the Board is uniform in their resolve to keep students healthy and inside the classroom. While the issue of mandatory vaccinations has been pushed back, another layer of protection in the form of expanded testing is in the works. In closing, Bregy said: “We need to get going on the policy writing of that so that we can bring that back to the Board of Education.”