Summerville High School

Gov. Gavin Newsom doesn’t appear to be budging on a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for all kindergarten through 12th-grade schoolchildren in California despite recent pleas from superintendents of Mother Lode school districts fearing a mass exodus of students that would decimate their budgets.

Michael Merrill, superintendent of the Summerville Union High School District in Tuolumne, and all five superintendents in Calaveras County sent off separate but similar letters in recent weeks that stated half or more of their current and incoming students could leave if required to vaccinate against the deadly virus, which has killed 233 people between the two counties in less than two years.

“A majority of our families have made it clear through surveying and personal conversations that they feel that vaccinating their students is a personal choice and should not be mandated,” Merrill said in his letter dated Dec. 1.

The letter stated internal surveys found as much as 61% of the 650 students currently enrolled at the district may not return for in-person learning if required to take the vaccine.

Merrill said half of all families with students entering ninth grade in the fall of next year said they would leave the district and 12.5% would opt for independent study if vaccination for COVID-19 was required, while 41% of current ninth- through 11th-graders would leave, and 20% would do independent study.

“That is not good for our students, our school and its program, nor our community,” he said.

It’s unclear from the letter where families would send their students or how they would educate children considering that the vaccine mandate applies to all K-12 schools throughout the whole state, including charter and private schools.

Newsom announced on Oct. 1 that California would become the first state in the nation to mandate vaccines for all schoolchildren as soon as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration grants full approval for use of the vaccines in their respective age groups.

The FDA has currently only granted what’s called a “emergency use authorization” for vaccines made by Pfizer in children 5 and older, with the pediatric version for those age 5 to 11 being one-third of the adult dosage.

Full approval of the vaccine from the FDA for children in seventh through 12th grades is expected to come before the fall semester next year, meaning they would be the first required to get the jab.

Merrill’s letter stated the anticipated “mass exodus of students due to family choice,” in addition to employees who will not return if mandated to get the shot and have boosters, the district’s board could have to alert many staff about potential layoffs as early as March 15.

Any layoffs would then have to be approved by the board on May 15, the letter stated. That could lead to employees looking for employment elsewhere and render the district unable to “staff our schools appropriately if students do return.”

“Too much of this feels left to chance and hope,” Merrill wrote. “That is not how we run schools in California and I ask that you consider this as we are doing what we can to have schools open for in-person instruction, providing mental health support and preparing our students for this very uncertain future.”

Merrill noted earlier in the letter that the district’s schools have been open for full in-person learning with all students on campus daily since October 2020 “without any on-campus transmission of the COVID-19 virus.”

As an alternative, Merrill requests that Newsom allow the vaccinations to be voluntary and have schools continue the other measures currently being taken to prevent the spread of the virus, such as requiring masks, social distancing when appropriate, and regular hand washing and sanitizing of facilities, despite the potential impact of some of those on student’s mental health.

“We know that the mental health of our students is still a big concern due to the anxiety around masking, uncertainty with the virus and how long it will be around, loss of jobs, loss of freedoms, and such,” he wrote. “But we do realize that in-person learning is the best opportunity to reach our students academically, emotionally and socially by providing caring adults to work with them daily in the classroom, on the stage, in one-one as well as group settings and on the athletic fields.”

Calaveras County public schools could lose 50% or more of their students due to the vaccine mandate, according to a joint letter to Newsom dated Nov. 19 that was signed by county Superintendent of Schools Scott Nanik and superintendents Mike Chimente, of Bret Hart Union School District; Mark Campbell, of Calaveras Unified School District; Paula Wyant, of Mark Twain Union Elementary School District; and Tom Hoskins, of Vallecito Union School District.

The officials pleaded for the state to maintain “medical, religious, and personal exemptions” from the COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

Communications staff from the state Department of Public Health responded to a request for comment on the letters that was sent via email to Newsom’s press office by The Union Democrat on Friday and appeared to remain firm on enforcing the mandate.

“At a time when COVID-19 case rates remain at concerning levels, we must do everything to protect our kids — now is not the time to let our guard down, especially as the winter months approach and many students remain unvaccinated,” the department said.

The state already requires students to be vaccinated against other viruses, including measles, mumps and rubella, so “there’s no reason COVID-19 should be treated any differently,” the department said.

“Our K-12 safety measures have resulted in California leading national trends in preventing school closures due to outbreaks and keeping students in-person,” the department said.

As an example, the department linked to a New York Times article published in October about the state accounted for less than 1% of the nation’s school closures despite having 12% of the nation’s total students.

The department also pointed to Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, applauding the state’s student vaccine mandate, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics urging all children 5 and older to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Tuolumne and Calaveras counties lag behind both the state and nation in terms of the percentage of their respective populations who are fully vaccinated, especially among young age groups.

State data showed 32.4% of Tuolumne County residents 12 to 17 years old and 29.5% of Calaveras County residents in the same age range were fully vaccinated as of Friday, compared with 61.8% statewide.

The percentages for children ages 5 to 11 who were fully or partially vaccinated were 0.5% in Tuolumne County, 1% in Calaveras County and 16.4% statewide, after the FDA authorized emergency use of the pediatric shots early last month.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4541.

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