The co-student body presidents at Ashland High School are calling on their school board to add a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for students who are eligible to get the shots. Luke Seeley and Joshua Datz started an online petition after appealing directly to the school board. They say they’re frustrated by the board’s inaction so far. Meanwhile, a staff analysis presented to the board of Portland Public Schools last week recommended a vaccine mandate for students 12 and older. The school board’s student representative, Jackson Weinberg, was the first to speak at the meeting, saying a vaccine mandate would make students safer. We hear from Weinberg and Datz.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: Oregon’s K-12 teachers and staff have about two more weeks before they have to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. They are subject to a statewide mandate. Students don’t have a similar mandate, but that could change. In Ashland High School, the co-student body presidents are calling on the school board to add a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for students. They started an online petition after appealing directly to the school board. Meanwhile, a staff analysis presented to the Portland Public Schools Board last week recommended a mandate for students 12 and older. The school board’s student representative, Jackson Weinberg, was the first to speak at the meeting saying a vaccine mandate would make students safer. Jackson Weinberg is a senior at Portland’s Cleveland High School and joins us now along with Josh Datz, a senior at Ashland High School. It’s good to have both of you on Think Out Loud.
Jackson Weinberg: Thanks for having us.
Josh Datz: Thanks for having us.
Miller: Josh Datz, first. What led you to start this petition?
Datz: So Luke Seeley, my co-president, and I started the petition. There is a fresh start program at our school, Ashland High School, and it’s our program that welcomes freshmen at our high school and we had a council retreat. We went up to the Lake of the Woods and that’s a totally outdoor space. It was just getting us ready for the next sessions of that program and within one day we had a COVID exposure that shut down the whole sort of program as we knew it and it had to be reconfigured. And so that was sort of the first wake-up call that we got that this is going to be a thing that was going to continually affect our year. And the data that we had coming out of last year overwhelmingly made the case that students put a really high price, a really high value on on-campus learning and in-person communication and connection. And we said, wow, this happened in one day and so I don’t think it’s going to take too long for more exposure to happen. And we could see our school district making the choice to go back to online and we wanted to do our best to provide the best learning for the students at our school and in our district.
Miller: And so for you and your co co-president, the idea is that this would be one more thing that the district could do to minimize the disruption to the school year and maximize the possibility of in-person learning.
Datz: Yeah. It definitely falls outside of the bounds of just our learning, but definitely, at our school board meeting on the 23rd, we had the Ashland County Medical Director Dr. Jim Shames speak there about COVID-19 and he had some really valuable input. He was talking about how he sort of makes mandates the last option and tends not to go in that direction, but what really stuck with us is his conversation about this is the only next step. We have to find a path forward out of this pandemic and this is the best thing that we can do To lower the spread of COVID-19 and its impact on our community and the communities around us. It wasn’t just about students, it’s about Ashland, Oregon. It’s about Phoenix, Talent, Medford and really it’s about all the counties that our athletes travel into because we have travel sports teams that are traveling all throughout Oregon. And so it’s a county issue, but it’s a state issue as well.
Miller: Jackson Weinberg, as I mentioned, you are the student representative on the Portland Public Schools Board. I’m curious what stood out to you in the analysis prepared by district staff that came out and was presented to the board last week in support of a student vaccine mandate?
Weinberg: What really stood out to me was how in-depth we went into the possible implications of having such a mandate. For example, we looked at which communities had lower levels of vaccination. And we also looked into how we could bridge that gap and make sure that this mandate would disproportionately affect certain communities. So we wouldn’t be excluding even more students from certain communities.
Miller: Why are you personally in favor of the vaccine mandate? We heard Josh Datz’s version of this, talking not just about maximizing school days, but also the overall public health of the entire region, not even just Jackson County but spreading out further. What are your reasons?
Weinberg: I think my reasons are pretty similar. But also as student representative, it’s my job to represent all students and in that role, it’s my job to basically assure that those students that I represent are able to keep going to school being in person and I take that really seriously. So if we have more COVID exposures, that means more students are having to quarantine at home, they’re losing out on that in-person instruction. And also I can’t even think about what would happen if we had a COVID death at one of our schools. It would be absolutely devastating. So having this COVID vaccine is another layer of safety prevention from COVID that we can implement.
Miller: Do you have a sense, Jackson, for the vaccination rate of your fellow students at Cleveland High School or at any schools in the district?
Weinberg: Yeah. We recently got a report from the board. I believe we’re hovering in between the 70-80% range. So roughly similar to the broader populace of Oregon.
Miller: How much do students talk about vaccination status among yourselves?
Weinberg: I’ve talked with multiple students, especially after that analysis came forward, and I’ve heard overwhelmingly their support and mandating this vaccine. I even talked to one student whose parents are against getting vaccinated but she personally wants to get vaccinated and this could be a tool for her to get vaccinated.
Miller: Josh Datz, what about you? Do you have a sense as well for the current vaccination rate among students in the district?
Datz: This question has come up over and over. We were asked for numbers by our board. We’ve been asked for numbers by our news outlets that we’ve done interviews with. And it’s a really unfortunate situation because my co-president and I went and had a meeting with our administration, specifically with our principal, asking him to authorize an official survey of our student body and it was rejected on the grounds that it is a divisive issue and a political issue. And while that’s true, we entirely disagree with his decision. But it’s really unfortunate that I can’t give you better information from Ashland because Ashland has really decided to sort of seal off its numbers, which is an unfortunate situation. I can tell you anecdotally, but there’s good support for it. There’s strong support for it among the student body that Luke and I represent. Again, unfortunately, we don’t have official numbers, but we’ve had a lot of students come to us and express really genuine support for it.
Miller: I should note that when I looked at the comments to the online petition that you and your co-student body president put forward, there was a lot of support there. One comment, in particular, stood out to me though. It was from somebody who said I was going to get the vaccine, but if you’re going to mandate it and tell me I have to, then I won’t. This is just an online comments. So who’s to say if this is even a student and who’s to say how much validity there is to do that? But I’m curious what you make of a comment like that.
Datz: It’s really interesting because we had a reporter from Oregon Public Broadcast talk to us about that and inform us that was sort of something that Eastern Oregon state representatives had brought up. And our response to that is it’s a pretty ridiculous accusation to say that a call for a mandate is the reason that our numbers are going up. And, the position that I hold on that is that the people who have gone vaccinated have made that decision because the science supports that decision. It can be an emotional decision. I want to protect myself, my loved ones, my family, but in the end, it’s a purely rational decision. Studies show that it’s effective. For people who would say, oh, well because you’re pushing for this mandate. I’ve decided that I’m not going to get the vaccine. What I say to that is that person was probably not going to get the vaccine anyway. Somebody in a situation where all it would take is for somebody to support a vaccine mandate and that’s all it would take for them to not get the vaccine. What I say to that is they probably weren’t going to get in the first place. So I’m not going to let comments like that diminish our enthusiasm for this kind of thing because I’ve heard so many people talk about their support for it. I have immunocompromised parents, so I’m not going to stop pushing for this because it matters a lot to me that my community is safe. And I just don’t really see that as a reason for why we should stop.
Miller: Jackson Weinberg. Pfizer has submitted data on kids ages 5-11 based on their clinical trials to the FDA. We’re waiting for the Feds to provide emergency use authorization for that age group. Let’s say that happens by the end of this month or early in November. Would you include that age group in a mandate if it were up to you?
Weinberg: If it were up to me, then I would say 100% yes. And I actually think it would be easier to include 5-18-year-olds, five and u, because that would be a mandate for all students in our district. So it would be easier to say everyone in our district needs to be vaccinated against COVID-19 versus just when you turn 12 we have a whole process you have to go through and stuff like that.
Miller: So when you turn 16, which is another thing I’ve seen, that’s the only age group that has a full FDA authorization as opposed to emergency use. Your argument is sort of for ease and clarity of the rule, have it be five and up as soon as the FDA gives emergency use authorization for that age group.
Miller: And Josh, that’s another big issue here is exemptions. How they would actually work in practice and what a district would allow parents or students to say to get out of this mandate?
Datz: Yes. We really take our lead there from the decision that came out of the LA Unified School district. We really agree with the way that they went about implementing that policy, which was that students who do not get the vaccine will be doing online learning and every district should have structures in place for that, especially because we were doing that last year. But they also created a provision which says that if there are official medical reasons for why you can’t get the vaccine, then you can be exempt from it, but they did not include it to the best of my knowledge as a religious exemption. And while I understand that people have really strong religious beliefs, I think this is a question of community health. I think it’s a question of what we owe to each other. And I think what we owe to each other is vaccination. We owe public safety to each other and we ought to do what’s best not only for ourselves but for our neighbors. We would hope that the board would not include a religious exemption in our vaccine mandate because they don’t think that we would see a lot of progress because there are plenty of families in Ashland who are not getting the vaccine for totally nonreligious reasons. And yet I absolutely see them utilizing that religious exemption to keep their kids out of it. I think that that would be a really big weak point in any vaccine mandate and I hope that we wouldn’t include that, but I think that there’s a lot of room for medical exemptions.
Miller: Just briefly, we talked to the head of the Oregon Health Authority Patrick Allen last week. Among the issues, we talked about was the possibility of a statewide student vaccine mandate. I want to run what he said by you and then Jackson Weinberg, we’ll get your thoughts. This is Patrick Allen: “There’s a process laid out in state statute for how we approach making a vaccine a required vaccine for school attendance. And it starts with an advisory committee that we maintain at the state level. We would look for the advisory committee on immunization practices at CDC. And it’s really unlikely, I think, that either of those committees would recommend a vaccine become a required vaccine until they’ve received full FDA approval for the ages in question and particularly when you think right now about kids 5 to 12 who are not eligible for vaccines. Pfizer has submitted data for emergency use approval and there’s some expectation that that may occur relatively soon, but I think we’re a long way away from full approval for vaccines for kids and I have a hard time imagining that we would make those required vaccines before that occurred.” Jackson Weinberg, we’ve been talking about district-level conversations here in Portland Public Schools and in Ashland, but what would you like to see at the state level?
Weinberg: I think what he just said totally makes sense. I think the state has an obligation to kind of follow its state statutes and I think that’s totally understandable. I think the hard part is we need this vaccination mandate like now and if the state doesn’t have that authority or ability to do that now, then I think it comes upon each individual district to do that themselves.
Miller: Jackson, I think you’ve got to go to class right now. I imagine that’s what the bell means so thank you very much, Jackson Weinberg and Josh Datz. I appreciate it.
Datz: I really appreciate being here.
Weinberg: Thank you.
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