by Photo by Sarah Berjan

The board of education at the Sweetwater Union High School District unanimously approved a mandate during a Dec.13 meeting that would require COVID-19 vaccines for staff members and eligible students 16 years or older. 

A deadline for the mandate is expected to come before March 15, 2022. Families and staff members will be asked to express their intent to vaccinate or participate in virtual instruction by mid-February 2022. There will be medical and religious exemptions. Similarly, staff must notify the district of their intent to complete the vaccination process, an exemption or resignation.

Students participating in extracurricular activities are required to be fully vaccinated or provide exemption. Student athletes must provide either option before Feb.5 when the CIF sports season begins. As of Dec.10, there are 65 percent of student athletes who are fully vaccinated. 

“This continues to be an evolving landscape,” superintendent Dr. Moises Aguirre said. 

There may be the option to extend the mandate to students ages 12-15 upon full approval from the U.S Food and Drug Administration. District officials cite the American Academy of Pediatrics in their drive to keep children in classrooms. 

“COVID-19 has disproportionately affected our South Bay communities, particularly people of color who make up the vast majority of students in our district. Taking this under consideration, this is why we are bringing this recommendation forth,” Superintendent Dr. Moises Aguirre said  

 The Pfizer-BioNTech booster shot was approved by the FDA on Dec.9 for individuals 16-17 years old at least six months after they received their second shot. Additionally, the state of California reinstituted a mask mandate slated to begin Wednesday regardless of vaccination status. 

“This is about layers of protection against Covid. While the vaccine is one of them, and a very important one, it doesn’t take away from the need to take away a mask. It doesn’t take away the need to wash our hands frequently, keep distancing and really think as you go into the holiday season about your gatherings,” General Counsel  Jennifer Carbuccia said. 

Since the start of the pandemic, the district has encouraged diagnostic and monitoring testing for COVID-19 as one of many major protective layers against the virus. The district partnered with San Diego State University and Concentric by Ginko to provide a variety of testing sites district-wide.

According to Carbuccia, the district has tested over 56,000 staff and students since the beginning of this school year and another 8,000 students staff and comm members who have been tested through state projects. The district plans to expand testing in classes starting next semester. 

Board-Certified Pediatrician and specialist on School Health Dr. Howard Taras joined the meeting via zoom to speak on the importance of COVID-19 vaccines. 

“When you get the vaccine, you teach the body how to respond to the real infection by giving it information in advance that is not infectious to to build up immunity,” Taras said. “That way when your body is exposed to the virus it can increase the immune system and prevent the infection, or if you do get infected it can prevent serious infection.” 

He addressed concerns surrounding the vaccine’s impact on youth. 

“The vaccine is very safe. There have been many mild side effects immediately after vaccines that usually occur several days after the vaccine and last 24-48 hours. There have been reports of myocarditis, which is the inflammation of the heart muscle, but it is very rare and very mild. Everyone has survived it and nobody needs any treatment for it. It's something that is a little higher in males than in females. It is self-resolving and not shown to be dangerous,” Taras said.  

Since the beginning of the semester, the SUHSD reported approximately 400 cases among the district's 36,000 students and roughly 100 cases among 4,600 staff members. The district has reported 14 epidemically linked COVID-19 outbreaks since the start of the semester.

Over 20 people came to speak on the topic, many expressed concern regarding the district's decision. Additionally, the SUHSD received a demand letter by “Let them Choose” advocacy urging against the mandate and stating school districts don’t hold the legal authority to impose COVID-19 mandates for students. 

“I just want to have a choice and I want it to be a medical decision between my child’s pediatrician and family. I don’t want it to be a forced to mandate by the district,” said Kimberly Dickson, a parent within the Sweetwater Union High School District. 

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