West Contra Costa Unified School District issues mandatory student vaccination rules

West Contra Costa is the latest school district to adopt mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for students.

The vote came close to midnight after a marathon meeting in Richmond on Thursday evening.

The district is one of the largest in the Bay Area with 56 schools spanning Richmond, Pinole, El Cerrito, San Pablo and Hercules.

"First and foremost, it's about safety," said Superintendent Chris Hurst, who has championed the mandate to the Board of Education.

Even as they endorsed it, some trustees expressed concern about how the requirement will be implemented and how it might affect student enrollment and performance.  

Hurst believes the urgency of the pandemic is most important. 

"For me, if our doctor from the county health office says this is the number one strategy to fight COVID then that is what we should strongly consider," said Hurst.

After a few hours of public comment, in person and on Zoom, trustees spent considerable time asking questions and discussing details.  

They voted fairly readily to impose vaccines on employees, vendors and volunteers.

MORE: Oakland schools hope to get more students vaccinated with community Q&As

But the mandate for students was more difficult.

"Please postpone your decision until we have more information," implored one mom who came to the meeting in person.

Only a handful of parents did so. Admittance required pre-registration and proof of vaccination.

Some people were turned away at the door.

"My son is a very healthy person," said parent George Poole, attending what he said was his first board meeting. "We don't have any idea about the long term effects of this vaccine."

Student athletes and anyone participating in extra-curricular activities must receive their first COVID-19 shot by Nov. 1 and second by Dec. 1. 

Other students have two weeks longer- their deadlines are Nov. 15 and Dec. 15.

About 15,000 students - half the district's population- are affected.

During the meeting, Contra Costa County's Public Health Officer Dr. Chris Farnitano participated remotely, explaining that vaccine complications reported among teens are miniscule compared to the protection provided  individuals and families. 

"I have teenage nephews myself and I am so glad they got the vaccine," said Farrnitano, adding, "it is the most powerful tool we have."

Other school districts including Oakland, Piedmont, and Hayward have already adopted a campus mandate.

Many West Contra Costa households embrace it.

"I'm concerned for my grandson, " said Teresa Robinson, outside El Cerrito High School. "I don't want him getting infected from someone else and I don't want him affecting someone else's health."

Another grandmother also spoke in favor, as she waited to pick up her granddaughter.

"Kids have to be vaccinated just to get into kindergarten so I don't understand why this is any different," said Carletta Reader. "I think all students should be vaccinated because of what's going on and because this virus is really bad."

As the meeting approached its 10:30 p.m. end time, the board extended it an hour to continue deliberations.  

There was talk of delaying a decision, or amending the order so students could submit to weekly Covid testing as an alternative to the vaccine.

In the end, the mandate passed and students who opt out will have to learn remotely.

"They will have the opportunity for independent study," said Hurst, "but we hope that people will move instead toward a decision of 'yes, we're going to vaccinate.’"

Some families upset with the decision threatened to abandon the district rather than be told what to do.

"What is your plan if we decide to pull our children out of school?" posed parent Carla Dean.

"I think you guys need to back off and let us make the decision of whether we want to vaccinate our children or not."

During the meeting, district staff admitted there have been no surveys to indicate how many staff and students might leave as a result of the mandate.