‘Time to save lives’: Berkeley school district, community debate vaccine mandate

photo of Emerson School, a BUSD
Joe Sison/Staff
The Berkeley Unified School District school board discussed the implementation of a vaccine mandate for students at its Wednesday meeting, with both the board and community members expressing different opinions on their support of the policy. The board also noted the lack of progress on the Black Joy Campaign, listened to an update on the use of funds from a local tax and detailed progress on increasing parent involvement in students’ education.

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Vaccine mandates and updates on Black Lives Matter and Latinx resolutions were up for discussion at the Berkeley school board’s Wednesday meeting.

The meeting opened with public comment, during which community members expressed starkly contrasting opinions on a vaccine mandate. While some said the district has “no right to mandate medical procedures for students or staff,” others said students attending school without a vaccine mandate face “mortal danger.”

“This is not the time for timidity,” said pediatrician and Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, parent Lynn Silver. “It is the time for decisiveness, time to save lives and require vaccinations.”

The board similarly conveyed mixed opinions on the mandate, discussing the legality of a vaccine mandate, alternatives to vaccination and possible testing requirements for students.

The draft mandate would allow students and staff to choose between vaccination and weekly testing but would require vaccination for optional activities such as athletics and prom.

Board member Laura Babitt cautioned against requiring vaccination for extracurriculars, and Vice President Ka’Dijah Brown added that if testing can be used to attend class in lieu of vaccination, it should also apply to these events.

“The rationale was keeping in mind our goals of getting as many students vaccinated as possible and providing an education to kids,” said school board President Ty Alper at the meeting. “(Mandating vaccines for extracurriculars) is more legally defensible and balances those two goals.”

Earlier in the meeting, board members wished attendees a happy Latinx Heritage Month and continued their discussion on the Black Lives Matter and Latinx Heritage resolutions.

Ruth Steele Brown, BUSD’s director of the Berkeley Research, Evaluation and Assessment department, presented data showing significantly lower rates of passing math grades for Black, Latinx and Latinx English learner students.

“When I look at the data, I see the same data that we saw in 1999,” said school board clerk Julie Sinai at the meeting. “We really have to monitor what we’re doing and what isn’t working, and stop doing things that aren’t working.”

Liza Estupin, BUSD’s director of categorical and special projects, detailed progress on increasing parent involvement in students’ education as part of the Latinx Heritage resolution.

The board also examined the status of the district’s Black Lives Matter resolution, critiquing the lack of progress made on the Black Joy Campaign.

“The purpose of the Black Joy Campaign is to celebrate and highlight Black excellence around school. This should have been one of the easiest (items to implement),” Brown said at the meeting. “I am deeply concerned that that part hasn’t begun.”

Other projects in the resolution — including the renaming of Jefferson and Washington elementary schools, a Black Lives Matter banner and a new ethnic studies teacher assignment — have already been completed or are currently in progress.

The board also heard an update on the use of funds from the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program, or BSEP, a local tax in support of Berkeley public schools.

According to Kathy Fleming, director of local resources and partnerships, BSEP dollars will first go to funding smaller class sizes, with remaining funds being allocated for library books, wireless access and counselors, among other programs.

Though the BSEP tax will not be up for renewal until 2024, BSEP Director Natasha Beery noted the importance of ensuring the funds are consistent with the needs of the district.

Contact Aditya Katewa, Jocelyn Huang and Maria Young at [email protected].