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Ashland students want vaccine mandate for peers

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneJoshua Datz, left, and Luke Seeley, Ashland High School Students, started a petition to get all eligible students vaccinated against COVID-19.

Two Ashland High School students are circulating a petition calling on their school board to require COVID-19 vaccination of all eligible students.

Luke Seeley and Joshua Datz ran for co-student body president last year and won. With their term starting at the same time of the 2021-22 school year, they felt it was their priority to keep their peers safe from COVID-19.

And then, when someone tested positive after only a single day at the high school’s Fresh Start retreat for new students — held outdoors without the entire student population — it was “a wake up call that we needed something different,” Datz said.

The two young men decided to craft a petition, which cites what they see as the Ashland School Board’s “failure” to implement a student vaccine mandate -- something that has “left the community as a whole at greater risk of infection.”

“The primary purpose of the district board is to create a safe and equitable learning environment for all students, and the current inaction demonstrates a failure to realize that goal,” Seeley and Datz state in their petition, signed as of Monday by 720 people, on change.org. “The time is now for the district to require vaccines for all eligible students.”

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Ashland High School co-student body presidents Joshua Datz, left, and Luke Seeley started a petition to get all eligible students vaccinated against COVID-19.

Datz and Seeley have appeared at school board meetings to talk with members about the importance of implementing a vaccine mandate. But they say the board has only been “somewhat positive, but certainly not decisive” on the matter.

Eva Skuratowicz, chairwoman of the Ashland School Board, responded to the petition in a statement to the Mail Tribune.

“Ashland students have the freedom to express and represent themselves,” she stated. “They have started a petition, on their own, regarding a student vaccine mandate. The Ashland School Board has not yet deliberated on this complex matter.”

She said the board is investigating whether it has the authority to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for all eligible students. Informed of this comment by the newspaper, Seeley and Datz expressed first confusion, then disappointment.

“We do know that there’s precedent across the nation and they [the Ashland School District] has implemented it for staff, so I don’t see where the distinction would be drawn for students,” Seeley said. “They [the school board] did pledge to continue the conversation in some form, so I assume that means they are genuinely considering implementing the policy like this.”

Datz noted it’s been long known that school staff will have to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“I think the fact that the school board is just now … starting to look into what power they have to do this, demonstrates just an incredible lack of imagination,” he said. “A lack of an ability to imagine COVID-19 could get worse.”

Meanwhile, as the board is looking into the idea of a student vaccine mandate, Ashland School District Superintendent Sam Bogdanove applauded the petition.

“I really appreciate the student voice and students sharing their concerns and coming forward to myself and the school board with concerns — that’s really useful and important for us to have that direct input,” he said. “It’s a complex issue, and there are a lot of things to consider.”

The CDC and Oregon Health Authority say children 12 and older are eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Children under that age cannot receive any coronavirus vaccine at this time.

But on Monday, Pfizer announced a study of its COVID-19 vaccine among children ages 5 to 11 was “safe, well tolerated and showed robust neutralizing antibody responses,” though they were given a lower dose than adults. The company plans to submit its findings to the FDA, which will likely approve the vaccine for pediatric use.

A spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority said the agency has not required COVID-19 vaccines for students attending K-12. However, teachers, school staff and volunteers must provide their school, employer or contractor with either proof of vaccination or religious or medical exemption from it by Oct. 18 if they wish to keep their jobs.

Bogdanove noted that his district started requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for its employees ahead of the governor’s announcement, and it has been met with approval from Ashland School District employees. Ninety-five percent of classroom staff is vaccinated, according to the superintendent.

“Where it makes sense to do that, it’s a different proposition for students,” Bogdanove said.

Seeley and Datz don’t have quantitative data on the number of their fellow classmates who have not received the COVID-19 vaccine, but they have anecdotal evidence there are “several.”

“We know there are quite a number of families in Ashland, who, regardless of whether they’re right or left-based, don’t really believe in vaccination,” Datz said. “There’s a prevalent culture of spiritual medicine, and that leads people not to get vaccinated.”

Seeley said it’s “worrisome, knowing there’s that much more potential for virus to spread.”

“What we’re trying to explain is, more vaccines create better public health,” he said. “It’s never going to be 100% percent effective, but we do know it will create a safer environment.”

People sounded off on change.org in the comments section below Seeley’s petition.

Aura Aryeff, whose son just graduated after more than a year of online learning due to the pandemic, was in support of the measure.

“Vaccine mandates in the older teen population seem like the only way at this point to keep kids healthy and in school, engaging in person with teachers and peers,” Aryeff wrote.

Allie Jensen said she is against such a mandate and admitted she accidentally signed the petition.

“I think the mandate is unfair, and unjust. People should be able to make choices for them selves (sic) and Not have to be mandated!” she wrote. “I was leaning towards getting the ‘COVID shot’ but now that the mandate exists I will Not be getting it just on a principle.

Seeley and Datz would like the board to take action on their proposed mandate on Oct. 11, the next regular meeting.