An Oct. 31 COVID-19 vaccine deadline could force thousands of high school athletes and musicians to the sidelines in the Los Angeles Unified School District, officials confirmed on Monday.
About 70% of students participating in sports, band and drill had submitted documentation of at least one vaccine dose as of Monday. Those under 18 will need evidence of two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by Oct. 31 and the doses must be three weeks apart. If they are 18, they could receive the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The school system released the 70% figure after The Times obtained more detailed documents, dated Oct. 20, indicating that 60% of affected students had met the requirement.
Using the six-day-old, more detailed documents, The Times reviewed vaccine rates for sport and sports-related activity in every high school, involving 21,295 students. Of these, 8,458 were at immediate risk on Oct. 20 of being cut from activities. In general, it appears that vaccine rates were lower in lower-income communities.
Officials also said Monday that the district has changed its policy, which previously required all students involved in any extracurricular activity to be vaccinated by Oct. 31. The extracurricular mandate no longer applies to middle schools and it no longer applies to high school activities that are not sports related, officials said.
“The decision was made to focus just on athletics because of the competitive nature of those sports and because they’re traveling,” said Sara Mooney, the district’s coordinator of civic engagement. “And because, both in county data and our own data, when we see outbreaks happening, it’s in those competitive sports.”
The progress in recent days has been encouraging, Mooney said: “We’ve seen really great acceleration closer to the deadline.”
The athletics-related vaccine rates could offer a bellwether for a bigger looming deadline. All students 12 and older must be fully vaccinated by the January start of the second semester unless they have a medical exemption. Students will not be excused based on personal or religious belief. Students who don’t make the cutoff must transfer to a remote independent-study option or pursue their education outside the nation’s second-largest school system.
The hope is that families will take the deadline seriously as did the vast majority of school district employees. Their deadline to get a first shot was Oct. 15: 95% did so, and about half of the remainder obtained an exemption.
L.A. Unified is one of six school systems in California that approved a student vaccination mandate. Two lawsuits over it already have been filed against the district. A state mandate is in the works, but unlikely to take effect before July 1, 2022 — and it will have a personal-belief exemption unless the Legislature passes a law to eliminate it.
In L.A., teams and coaches nervously await the Sunday posting of eligible athletes.
In football, the regular season ends Friday. Playoffs begin next week. Girls’ volleyball playoffs begin this week. Basketball season begins the second week of November. Coaches are hopeful that most key players will be vaccinated. They have a hard time imagining otherwise.
“I’m furious about this,” Eagle Rock football coach Andy Moran said. “I think it’s discriminatory. I don’t see how you single out a group from the student body and tell them they have to do something that everyone has to do in January.”
Football teams will need at least 18 fully vaccinated players to participate in next month’s playoffs, according to an email from the athletics office.
It has been uncomfortable for coaches. Some don’t think it’s their role to intervene in such a personal decision for a student, parent or family. Others try to educate.
One City Section football coach, who asked for anonymity to protect the identity of his player, said the student was afraid to be vaccinated. The coach pointed out the player’s tattoo and asserted that getting any tattoo would hurt more than a shot. The player got the vaccine.
Garfield is playing Roosevelt in the East Los Angeles Classic on Friday, and every member of Garfield’s football team and coaching staff is vaccinated, coach Lorenzo Hernández said.
“I applaud our district for protecting our students and staff,” said Hernández, who’s also a parent at the school.
Not every team and school is doing so well. Of 1,135 teams listed in the Oct. 20 data, 473 — or 41% — had fewer than half of team members vaccinated.
The data also show a general correlation between the vaccination rate and income of a community.
The Fairfax High School-area community of schools, serving some Westside neighborhoods, and the Cleveland High School-area community of schools, serving mainly the west San Fernando Valley, had vaccination rates higher than 70%.
In the Panorama High area, which has especially high poverty, the vaccine rate was 52%. Similarly the Fremont High School area in South Los Angeles was at 36%. Two school communities with significant Black student populations also had low vaccine rates: the Washington Preparatory High School area, 23%, and the Crenshaw High area, 20%.
Five of 13 cheerleaders were in the clear at Jordan High; 11 of 35 in boys soccer.
According to the Oct. 20 data, 1 of 36 Crenshaw High School football players had so far recorded proof of vaccination, although Coach Robert Garrett thinks some players have simply not yet uploaded documentation.
Garrett can sympathize with the reluctant. He waited until this month to complete his vaccination requirement.
“I’m a conspiracy theorist in general,” he said. “I shared that with them. I understand their concerns because I may have the same concerns. I was skeptical but finally got it done.”
Extensive outreach has been ongoing for months and will continue — including raffles for tickets to the hit show “Hamilton” and Magic Mountain and enlisting students to get the message out. The district is also using social media and endorsements to encourage students to get a shot.
The district has held campus vaccination clinics, and schools have set up tutorials to help students upload vaccine documentation, said school board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin.
“We also need to collectively help all parents understand the efficacy and safety of the vaccines for youth,” Franklin said. “Many students want to get the vaccine but are having trouble convincing their parents — even when parents are vaccinated themselves.”
Garfield football player Andrew Rodriguez said he never had the time to become vaccinated. Finally, when the school offered vaccinations on campus during the school day, he was able to get his shot in the middle of English class last month.
“Once the school brought it to campus, it made it a lot more convenient for me,” he said.
“I feel it’s what’s best,” Rodriguez said. “I feel a lot of us have to stop being selfish. Us getting the vaccine could save other lives.”