Aneis Cherry holds parent Tasneem’s hand while being vaccinated by Christina Salazar at Rosa Parks Elementary on Nov. 13, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Over the last two years, as COVID-19 has polarized the public, Berkeley school board meetings have seen their share of debate over public health policies like masking and vaccination.

On Wednesday night, as the school board considered whether to lobby the state legislature over two bills related to vaccination and testing, it became clear that questions of pandemic safety remain front of mind for many in the Berkeley community, even at a time when vaccination rates are high, mask mandates have been lifted and COVID-19 case rates are relatively low.

The Berkeley school board was slated to vote on whether to send public letters taking a stance on two bills: SB 871, which would require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend school and remove a personal belief exemption, and SB 1479, which would require school districts to implement COVID-19 testing programs and the state to potentially provide funding for them.

While the letters have limited bearing on the district’s COVID-19 policies, they drew the largest number of people to speak at the public comment section at school board meeting in recent months. At the same meeting, parents with medically vulnerable children or family members begged the school board to not cut Virtual Academy, its more robust distance learning option for elementary schoolers, next year.

Berkeley parents have spoken in favor of COVID-19 vaccine mandates during public comment sessions in the past. But this time, parents spoke in opposition to the vaccine mandate and in favor of the testing bill.

Wendy Bloom, a registered nurse at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, said she supports having widespread testing at schools. “You may believe the risk to kids some COVID is low, but it’s not true for many of the kids I care for that have cancer, sickle cell anemia, and other very vulnerable patients,” she said.

All the school board directors ended up voting in favor of the SB 1479 letter supporting COVID-19 testing programs except Vice President Laura Babitt, who abstained from the vote because she thought it could take away from other state funding priorities, especially if COVID-19 case rates remain low.

The letter about vaccine mandates was pulled from the agenda after it was learned that the bill itself, SB 871, would be withdrawn.

“Until children’s access to COVID vaccination is greatly improved, I believe that a state-wide policy to require COVID vaccination in schools is not the immediate priority, although it is an appropriate safety policy for many school districts in communities with good vaccine access,” the bill’s author, state Sen. Richard Pan, wrote Thursday.

Hours later, the California Public Health Department pushed back implementing the governor’s vaccine mandate to July 2023. The vaccine has not yet been fully approved by the federal Food and Drug Association for children.

The Berkeley school board currently has a policy, in effect since Jan. 3, requiring that students get vaccinated or tested weekly.

The board’s directors did not share their opinions on mandatory COVID-19 vaccination at the Wednesday meeting, but during a discussion of the overrepresentation of Black students in special education, Babitt said she wanted to focus on academic achievement and inequity, not public health policies.

“Mandating vaccinations is not my priority, an area in which we combined have no medical expertise,” Babitt said.

Wade, who did not use his last name, was among the parents who spoke against a vaccine mandate at the meeting. “I do not believe BUSD has a right or authority to speak for me or my family on this body autonomy issue,” he said.

Public letters to lawmakers

Director Ana Vasudeo had put forward both letters to the Berkeley school board.

“Without a doubt the most successful districts that have navigated this pandemic are the ones that have robust COVID-19 mitigation measures,” said Vasudeo, who is a managing director at Safely Opening Schools, where she co-authored a policy brief supporting mandatory COVID-19 vaccination in schools.

The statewide advocacy group Reopen California Schools said on Twitter that Vasudeo should have recused herself from the vote, calling her role with Safely Opening Schools a conflict of interest.

Vasudeo said her public advocacy does not present a conflict of interest because Safely Opening Schools “has no guarantee of funding should SB 1479 eventually pass.” She said she intends to “continue [her] public advocacy for strong COVID-19 mitigation measures in our schools.”

The school board occasionally writes public letters to lawmakers in support of bills, which have limited sway with legislators but reflect the district or school board’s stance on an issue.

In 2019, School Board Director Ty Alper introduced a resolution supporting SB 276, intended to crack down on doctors issuing fake medical exemptions to students for vaccination. (The bill became law in September 2019.)

COVID-19 cases have remained low in Berkeley schools since the winter surge. Over spring break, the school district gave out at-home COVID-19 tests like they did over winter break. Out of the 7,581 tests returned to the district, there were 23 positive tests, Superintendent Brent Stephens said at the school board meeting.

Because the student vaccine mandate bill is now on hold, it is unlikely that the school board will take up the letter again.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...