Editor’s Note: Dr. Smita Malhotra is a parent, author and the medical director of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Many school boards are often better known for disagreements than mutuality. But in Los Angeles, our school board and superintendent are unified in acting on their collective responsibility to protect students against rising child cases of Covid-19.
In recent weeks, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has rolled out several policies to ensure a safe return to the classroom, including mandatory mask wearing, weekly testing for students and staff and a requirement that district employees are fully vaccinated by October 15.
And now, those policies also include a vaccine requirement for all eligible LAUSD students. After a unanimous Board of Education vote, children ages 12 and older are required to be fully vaccinated by the end of the year, while students with qualifying exemptions will have the option for an independent learning program.
As the medical director for the Los Angeles Unified School District, my No. 1 priority is to put the health, safety and well-being of children first. And as a pediatrician, I understand that vaccines are one of the greatest advancements of modern medicine. The reason why those of us parenting in the United States don’t have to worry about diseases like diphtheria, smallpox or polio in our children is because of vaccines. Lastly, as a mother of two children who are under the age of 12 – including one second-grade student enrolled in LAUSD – I have first-hand knowledge of the concerns and challenges facing many parents whose children are too young to be vaccinated.
Los Angeles Unified is the country’s second-largest school district, serving more than 600,000 students. But it is the first major school district in the nation to require the vaccine for in-person learning. This bold decision by our school board is sound and backed by science. It is one that I hope will spark a trend across the country and the world that emboldens social responsibility. Our school board and superintendent understand that vaccinations will bring back in-person learning in the safest way possible, and more importantly, that it’s the right thing to do for communities and children, especially for those children, like my own, who are too young to receive a vaccine.
The LAUSD requirement couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Across the country this summer, we’ve seen more and more children hospitalized due to Covid-19. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), as of September 9, more than 5 million children have tested positive for Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, with 243,000 cases added in the past week. This isn’t just happening because of the severity of the Covid-19 Delta variant, but rather because there is greater transmission taking place from unvaccinated adults and adolescents.
We’ve seen disturbing images of very young children in the intensive care unit – intubated through no fault of their own because they cannot be vaccinated. We’ve also seen images of vaccine-eligible teenagers experiencing the same. According to the CDC, the hospitalization rate among unvaccinated adolescents is 10 times higher than that of teens who were fully vaccinated. Los Angeles Unified currently has 225,000 students who are eligible for the vaccine, and roughly 80,000 of that group are unvaccinated. The communities served by Los Angeles Unified have also been among the most impacted throughout the pandemic. Requiring vaccinations for our students will prevent further disease, hospitalizations, and deaths in our communities.
It is time we understand that the decision by adults not to get the vaccine, or to vaccinate those in their household who are eligible, directly impacts the lives of our most vulnerable children: those who cannot be vaccinated. The CDC reports that emergency department visits and hospital admissions in children and adolescents are higher in states with lower vaccination rates – and, conversely, states with higher vaccination rates see fewer Covid-related ED visits and hospital admissions among kids. This indicates that vaccination directly impacts the health and well-being of children.
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We must act responsibly and collectively if we are to reach herd immunity, which requires vaccinating a large percentage of our population. It’s especially crucial that we do this while we wait for the US Food and Drug Administration’s authorization or approval of Covid-19 vaccines for children under the age of 12. When this is available, I will not hesitate to vaccinate my young children.
The families of Los Angeles Unified deserve to be able to return to school safely and permanently. Our children deserve an opportunity to experience a childhood free of the menace of a pandemic, and I am looking forward to the day when children have to ask what Covid was. It is at this crucial time in history that we are being asked to move away from our individualism and make choices for the sake of humanity, for the sake of our communities, and more specifically, for the sake of our children.