Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist

Covid in Schools Series- Mark Twain Elementary Union School District

Second Place Winner, 2021 California Journalism Awards, Coverage of Youth and Education

Mark Twain Elementary School District opposes COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its students in unanimous vote

Marie-Elena Schembri, Calaveras Enterprise, November 11, 2021

At a public meeting Thursday night at Copperopolis Elementary School, the Mark Twain Union Elementary School Board (MTUESD) announced that they will not enforce Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students in its schools.

MTUESD encompasses Copperopolis Elementary and Mark Twain Elementary School in Angels Camp, which is a K-8.

The board’s decision, following a handful of other school boards throughout the state, came at the end of a two-and-a-half-hour long meeting, during which parents, community members, and school board members expressed concerns over the safety and moral implications of enforcing the mandate, which says that (following FDA approval) all kindergarten through 12th-grade students in the state of California will be required to receive the vaccine in order to be allowed to attend school in-person.

According to a press release issued by the MTUESD board, they “will not take coveted public education away from the children the District serves or stand in opposition to children and families when a parent exercises their right to protect the health and welfare of their child.”

The school board made a motion to vote on the enforcement of the vaccine for students but did not make any decisions regarding enforcing the mandate for teachers and staff.

Discussions on Thursday night focused on the children. Emotional parents struggled to hold back remarks about the mandate during other agenda items, asking questions about whether the school district will lose government funding if they vote against the mandate.

Superintendent Paula Wyant explained that the board wasn’t aware of a way in which they might lose current funding, though they are expected to follow “ed code” mandates that “are not memorialized in any way.”

One parent said, “If we are strong enough, are we going to stand up, say we're not going to do this, we’re not going to adhere, we’re not going to bow down to the government? … I’d really like to know the truth if you guys are pulling our chain… but really, you guys want that money...and it’s going to come down to the money like it always does.”

Another pleaded with the board, “When we took out the death penalty a long time ago, the reason behind that… they said that if one person is put to death that is innocent, it is not ok to pass.

“If one child is injured by this vaccine, if one child loses their life over this vaccine, will you be able to sleep at night? Because I won’t, and I will not put my children at risk. … When you’re making this decision, I just want you to think of that question.”

Two letters from parents who could not attend the meeting were also read aloud by the board. Both expressed gratitude for the school board’s efforts to keep their children safe and in school but advised they will remove their children from the school district if the mandate is enforced.

The board also presented statistics from surveys they sent out to parents, caretakers, and community members regarding the vaccination mandate. According to data provided by the MTUESD board, over 64% of the 287 responses received indicated that they do not want their children vaccinated, and 60% answered that they would remove their children from the school district, with 30% saying they will exert their “personal belief or medical exemption as long as available.”

The board also noted that two other districts contacted MTUESD to determine what their decision would be and urged them to consider going against the mandate.

As emotions rose and discussions devolved, parents appeared frustrated that the board had not yet taken action, despite a promise from one of its members that “this board will speak.”

Board member Kendall Morlan broke the growing tension by offering up a personal statement, saying it was “good to take a stand” and that the board had “nothing to lose” by doing so.

Morlan read off a prepared statement that spelled out reasons for her decision not to support the vaccine mandate, citing data that Morlan collected regarding risks associated with the vaccine and called into question the effectiveness and necessity of the vaccine, emphasizing that the school district will lose staff because of this mandate.

Morlan stated, “There comes a time when we must stand up for what is right and protect our children and staff, regardless of consequences. The vaccine must remain a matter of personal choice, based on individual health considerations.”

The sentiment was echoed by board member Christy Miro, who said she “will always be an advocate for parental choice,” and Diane Bateman, who said, “I don’t like the way they are trying to take the parental decisions away from parents. I don’t know what the future’s going to hold for us, but right now we’re going to try… to stand up for all of our children, our grandchildren, and, I think, the parent’s rights.”

Finally, the four board members who were present (board member Timothy Randall was absent) voted on the motion that they “will not reject children from attending school who are unvaccinated,” and all members in attendance approved the motion.

Applause broke out from parents and community members relieved to hear, as stated by board member Jennifer Eltringham, “they’re not going to come to this school and take our children out and tell them they can’t go to school ‘cause they don’t have a shot.”

This is unprecedented territory for the MTUESD school board, who cited legal risks in voting to uphold the state’s mask mandate for students in September. While they expressed concerns Thursday night over repercussions from “bargaining units,” the county office of education, health department, and other state and federal governing bodies, the board ultimately decided to stand in opposition to the mandate “given the ‘rushed’ minimal trials and studies compared to other historical vaccines, and the facts of infection rate and other COVID-19 facts with relation to infection, death rate, and transmittal.”

Calaveras Unified School District (CUSD) is currently the only other school district in Calaveras County that has scheduled a school board vote regarding the vaccine mandate. The board plans to issue their decision on Nov. 9. Comments made by board members at a previous meeting have indicated that they will choose not to comply with the mandate, according to CUSD Superintendent Mark Campbell.

“They are aware of the potential ramifications of non-compliance (exposure to liability, actions by staff/unions, actions by CAL-OSHA, loss of students/staff, impacts on funding, etc.)… all are possible, not definite,” Campbell told the Enterprise on Thursday. “It is too early to tell what exactly would happen to CUSD if the board votes to have the district not comply. There are too many details to work out at the state level yet. There really isn’t a definitive answer as to what will happen with the mandate, and with potential non-compliance.”

It is unclear exactly what will happen to school districts who have opposed the mandate, including Happy Valley Union School District in Shasta County, which voted against compliance in mid-October.

According to county superintendent of schools Scott Nanik, school boards voting against a statewide mandate can put school staff in a “difficult position.”

“The board cannot exempt them from the law, and I think it misleads parents,” he said. “There is still a long way to go in the process, and July 2022 is (ambitious) for the state to enact a requirement.”

The new regulations will take effect at the start of the term following FDA approval, which could be either Jan. 1 or July 1, whichever comes first, and that July 1, 2022 is expected to be the starting date for grades 7-12.

The current verify-or-test requirement for staff will be converted to a vaccine requirement no later than when the first phase of the student requirement becomes effective.