Almost 50 percent of all Shasta County students missed school Monday. Most were absent as part of a state-wide protest against Governor Gavin Newsom’s student COVID vaccine mandate, which is not expected to take effect until the fall of 2022.
Shasta County has had one of the highest COVID rates in the state of California, with a death rate from COVID that is six times the state average. But even as the Delta surge of the COVID virus led to an all-time peak in COVID hospitalizations and deaths over the last several months, some community members have become increasingly vocal against COVID restrictions. Many have stated publicly that they are concerned they are experiencing losses of freedoms that may eventually lead to the loss of their American way of life.
Newsom’s October 1 announcement of student vaccine mandates came close on the heels of the September 30 deadline for all healthcare workers to receive the COVID vaccine, and just prior to an October 15 deadline for all California teachers to vaccinate or test weekly.
Newsom’s COVID vaccine mandates for students have been welcomed by many across the state including top representatives from California’s teachers unions. But in Shasta County, the student mandate drew a swift and significantly different response. Parents, teachers, healthcare workers, and others mobilized by the hundreds in a deli parking lot and by social media, before pulling their children from school in protest on Monday October 18th, the first school day after Newsom’s mandate that teachers either be vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID took effect.
For many, the student vaccine mandate appears to have been a tipping point. While personal exemptions to the student vaccine are currently allowed, experts have called the exemption a “loophole” and there has already been talk of tightening the exemption process. And while teachers are currently allowed to test rather than vaccinate, when student mandates take effect, testing for teachers will no longer be a valid alternative to vaccination.
Those realities appear to have encouraged a significant percentage of Shasta County to respond to Newsom’s newest order by temporarily removing their children from school.
The numbers who did so indicate that a majority or near majority of Shasta County residents oppose COVID vaccine mandates in schools. According to Shasta County Office of Education Superintendent Judy Flores, a full 10,930 of Shasta County’s 24,070 students were absent Monday. That number includes data from all twenty-five school districts across Shasta County and all but three of Shasta County’s charter schools, she says, and equals slightly more than 45 percent of the total population of county schools.
The data comes in response to a survey sent out by Flores. She says Tony Thurmond, Superintendent of California Public Schools, reached out to some rural counties, including Shasta, to request absentee data from Monday, leading her to conduct the survey of county schools.
While total absences reflect COVID-positive students and those on quarantine as well as those who walked out, Flores says, those students represents a small number of the overall absences. Last week, COVID-related absences across the county totaled 566 students.
While some parents told the Shasta County Board of Supervisors Tuesday that they’ve permanently pulled their children from public schools due to COVID mandates, others are choosing to hold their children out of school only periodically.
A post on the Instagram account, School-Walkout-2021 reads: “We’re changing strategy so we can stay STRONG! We stay out of school every Monday in peaceful protest of the v** mandate. We just want CHOICE. Personal medical freedom. We will continue to take action until it changes!”
The decision by parents to intentionally hold their children home from school represents a reversal of last year’s events, when many parents fought California’s governor over school closures, citing the social and emotional harm caused by absences from school. In 2021, the state of California adjusted school COVID policies by removing social distancing requirements and modifying quarantine requirements. Both changes reflected updated science about COVID transmission, and were designed to ensure children had more access to in-person learning.
Local activists gathered in small numbers today, Friday, by the corner of Hilltop and Dana Drive as part of what they called “Freedom Friday.” In a few days, they’ll hold another event at the Riverfront Park by the Sundial Bridge.
“No-Mandate Monday March & Rally” will occur October 25, at 10:30 am and will be followed by protests at the local district offices. Organizers say they’ll meet again at “The Park” in downtown Redding that evening.