School officials study path to no masks next fall

Shots will probably not be required, but people who are unvaccinated may still have to wear masks

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BP Drawing by Keira Beller and Noah Elad

YES: School officials say getting a vaccine could mean a green light for going massless to school next fall.

By Juliet Wiener , Shalhevet High School

In order for Shalhevet to be completely mask-free next fall, all staff and students would have to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19, school officials said this week. 

However, the question of whether vaccines will be required for all students in 2021-22 has yet to be decided, according to Chief Operating Officer Ms. Sarah Emerson. 

“A decision has not yet been made with regards to requiring the Covid vaccine for next year,” Ms. Emerson wrote in an email reply to Boiling Point questions May 21.  “We will continue to take guidance from the CDC, as well as, of course, state and local health officials as we make decisions for the school community and student body.” 

Shalhevet’s administration and Medical Task Force have briefly discussed next year’s Covid guidelines in meetings, but have not yet formally met to make a decision. 

Dr. Julie Higashi, co-head of the medical task force and a Shalhevet parent, as well as an infectious disease specialist at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said they will have to come to a conclusion before students return to campus in August. 

“Everybody wants kids back in school in-person, and so from the standpoint of vaccine mandates, a strategy that other schools have taken is to say we really want to be fully open and we want to be fully open without masks,” Dr. Higashi said. “So what it’s going to take to make that happen is that the vaccine will be mandatory.”

Shalhevet is still exploring this option, but Dr. Higashi also offered another model of how school next year might look — a version where both vaccinated and unvaccinated students would be allowed on campus: vaccinated students can be maskless on campus, while unvaccinated students would be required to wear a mask, she said. 

“I don’t think the school has any interest in excluding kids from coming back to school,” said Dr. Higashi. “It would just be that if you’re unvaccinated you should be wearing a mask. That’s my understanding of what we are thinking about going forward.”

Current CDC guidelines, which will go into effect in Los Angeles County June 15, say vaccinated individuals will no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors in any-sized gathering, but those who are unvaccinated will still have to wear a mask.

And although school officials are waiting for the CDC to supply more vaccination guidance for schools before making a decision, as a private school Shalhevet technically does not need to wait for the CDC to decide for itself.

To date, hundreds of private institutions and universities across the country, including UCLA and USC, have come out with statements saying vaccination will be required for their students returning to campus in the fall. 

“I really think it’s going to come down to what we want the school to look like going forward…,” Dr. Higashi said in an interview. “It’s about being able to be completely mask-free, and that’s the main decision factor. So I can’t tell you what they are going to do or say but those are the considerations being weighed.” 

The issues might be different for a lower or elementary school, she added.

“What’s nice about being in high school is right now everybody can get vaccinated,” Dr. Higashi said.

I don’t think the school has any interest in excluding kids from coming back to school. It would just be that if you’re unvaccinated you should be wearing a mask. That’s my understanding of what we are thinking about going forward.”

— Dr. Julie Higashi, LADPH and Shalhevet Medical Task Force

The question of whether vaccines will be required for next year is important because not all Shalhevet students are planning on getting vaccinated. 

“I personally will never get the vaccine, because I’m not really sure what they’re putting in my body,” sophomore Talia Tibi told the Boiling Point. “ And although there are no side effects now, we don’t know what it will do to us long term. Like I’m young and healthy and do not see a need for me to get it.”

Dr. Higashi said vaccines were actually tested more on teens than they were before being approved for adults.

“The testing trials that happened for teenagers are actually more than equivalent to the trials for adults, because they were put to the test during the height of the surge of the pandemic,” Dr. Higashi said. “The trials for this age group are being done under more stringent circumstances because we’ve got variants circulating, because they are happening later than the trials for adults, and because these trials were happening during the height of transmission. 

“It was a really wonderful testing period from the standpoint of effectiveness,“ she said. 

She also said students should not use social media or the internet to make their decisions.

“Don’t rely on what youre reading on the internet — go talk to a healthcare professional,” Dr. Higashi said. “You might want to talk to more than one, because this vaccine is safe.” 

To those who are hesitant, Shalhevet leaders are advising students to get the vaccine. 

“The administration and the Medical Task Force strongly encourage all that are eligible to get vaccinated,” said Ms. Emerson, “and are happy to help anyone that needs any assistance in securing an appointment for themselves or a friend or family that might need it.”

Junior Sara Adatto is grateful to have gotten vaccinated already.  

“I’m happy that I got the vaccine and that people around me are getting it, because I can now be with family and friends while feeling safe and comfortable,” Sara said in an interview.

Dr.Higashi said she hoped Shalhevet be able to convince everyone to get the shot, rather than have to require it like measles or polio vaccines.

“The risks associated with the vaccine are so much lower than the risks of being unvaccinated,” Dr. Higashi said. 

“My hope is that it won’t take a mandate, that people will understand that this is something that’s going to make Shalhevet have a completely back to normal year where there can be shabbatons and all the social stuff that comes with being a part of  Shalhevet and a wonderful place to go to high school. 

“I just hope that that would be motivation enough for us to get all the students vaccinated… Luckily I think we are part of a community that by and large believes in vaccines.”

This story was originally published on The Boiling Point on May 28, 2021.