On October 6, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board passed a policy requiring that students aged 12 years or older either receive a COVID-19 vaccine or submit to weekly tests. The policy will go into effect on January 3, 2022, if sufficient testing is available. This is potentially earlier than the statewide vaccine mandate, which was passed six days prior to the BUSD policy. The statewide mandate has no testing option and will be implemented the term after the FDA fully approves the vaccine for children.
The BUSD vaccine-or-test mandate, on the other hand, will apply to five to 11 year olds four months after the date of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorization of the vaccine for that age group.
Berkeley Adult School students and those attending indoor extracurricular events must also be vaccinated, with no testing option.
“I’m really excited to partner with the city, public health department, [and] our community partners on a campaign that will help us achieve not only health and safety in our school community, but health equity in our community as well,” School Board President Ty Alper said during the meeting.
Alper said the policy is meant to give students the time and opportunity to get vaccinated before the state mandate goes into effect, minimizing the number of students kept out of school or made to enter independent study.
Alper said he’d gotten several messages, one from Vicki Alexander, the board president of Healthy Black Families, that said the district should be culturally sensitive, recognizing that health mandates have disproportionate impacts on different racial groups.
Significant racial disparities in vaccination rates can be seen in Berkeley. At BHS, 54 percent of Black students and 43 percent of mixed-race students have been fully vaccinated, compared with 91 percent of white and Asian students.
However, the City of Berkeley still reports a vaccination rate of 94 percent, one of the highest in the country.
The school district plans to continue working with the City of Berkeley Public Health Department to provide free vaccination clinics at school sites, such as Berkeley High School (BHS).
BHS Principal Juan Raygoza said in an email that vaccination clinics have been scheduled for the upcoming weeks. Unvaccinated BHS students can receive the first the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on October 19 and November 10 across the street from the main office of BHS.
The board also approved $630,000 for COVID-19 testing at a previous meeting, and BUSD is currently offering free student testing at all district elementary, middle, and high school campuses.
On September 29, the school board considered implementing a vaccine mandate for student athletes over 16 years old who would have no testing option. However, the board was divided, and ultimately decided to cut the mandate from the policy.
“With my limited knowledge and obviously, the seriousness of the pandemic, I would have liked to see a mandate across the board, as they’re doing so in a lot of businesses and corporations,” said Victor Aguilera, a teacher in Berkeley International High School (BIHS) at BHS.
Aguilera said he would have pushed for a vaccine mandate, though he isn’t aware of the intricacies of the decision.
Anna Khan-Akselrod, a junior in BIHS, said the policy should have been implemented at the start of the school year.
“It’s overdue,” Khan-Akselrod said. “We should have had this before we started in-person school. It’s very necessary because in school we don’t follow that many social distancing guidelines. We’re not able to socially distance because of space.”
Riyen Rabe-Alexander, a junior in Academic Choice (AC), said a vaccine mandate without a testing option would be safer as the virus could be spread to others before a student receives a positive COVID-19 test result. However, she still supports BUSD’s policy.
“It’s a really good thing because it keeps people safe and works towards not spreading the virus,” Rabe-Alexander said. “Everybody should be vaccinated to help the community.”