Oakland Unified approves strict policy: No vaccine, no in-person school

No COVID vaccine, no in-person school - that new policy for Oakland students was adopted by the Oakland Unified school board Wednesday night.

Trustees decided that unvaccinated students 12 and older will not be able to attend in-person classes, starting in January, unless they apply for and receive an exemption. Under OUSD's vaccine requirement, approved by the board in September, the district may grant exemptions based on people's personal beliefs about vaccines.

In a 4-3 vote, the board chose the strictest option presented to them: That students must get vaccinated or they'll have to take classes through the school district's online, virtual school.

Students would have to transfer to OUSD's online school, Sojourner Truth Academy. It currently has more than 300 students enrolled and 40 teachers. 

One of the other enforcement options that was not approved had included barring unvaccinated students from attending extracurricular activities, but letting them go to class. A third option would have delayed any enforcement until August 2022.

Some school board members expressed fears this policy would impact students of color the most. There were also concerns about whether the district's online academy can handle an influx of students.

Board member Mike Hutchison voted against the mandate.

"Less than half of the teenagers who are Black and brown are vaccinated," said OUSD Board Member Mike Hutchinson. 

During the public comment period, the policy evoked strong emotions on both sides. 

"I'm here to speak in favor of the strongest vaccine mandate possible, because all our children need to be safe to be in these schools," said one parent, calling into the meeting on the phone.

Another parent speaking at the podium in the meeting, expressed anger: "Now, with these vaccine mandates, ya'll don't run us! Ya'll don't tell us what to do with our children and our bodies," she said.

The district estimates about 60% of students older than 12 have had at least one dose of their vaccine.

MORE: Bay Area counties prepare to administer COVID-19 vaccines to children ages 5-11

A legal challenge is highly likely because this mandate is from a local board and not yet mandated by the state which authorizes all other shots. 

"If the state acted, there wouldn't be a question. That would be legal. But, for school districts to go alone, it's tricky," said UC Hastings professor Doreen Reiss, who  is an expert on vaccine law. 

And, under state law, Oakland's  personal belief exemption can also be tested in court. 

"California is no longer offering a non-medical exemptions since 2015. We abolished that one," said Reiss said. 

Hutchison countered that the state has time to act. 

"That gives us between now and January hopefully to have the state take action and provide guidance and hopefully to provide an implementation plan to cover our unvaccinated students," he said. 

On Wednesday, the California Health Department said officials plan to mandate vaccinations for school children but that’s not expected to kick in until the 2022-23 school year. 

In the meantime, California will wait until after this winter to review its school masking requirement and then will look at typical indicators like the number of people who are vaccinated and the rate of transmissions and hospitalizations, state health officials said. 

KTVU's Tom Vacar contributed to this report.