Listen to Austin 360 Radio
OPINION

My students wouldn't get vaccinated for COVID. As a teacher, I knew I had to intervene.

It wasn’t difficult to help one student realize he had misinterpreted the data on COVID. The hard part, he told me, would be convincing his father.

Larry Strauss
Opinion contributor

Nearly every day, I hear another sad story from a student about distance learning during the pandemic.

They talk about isolation and depression, family discord, frustration, long hours of chores and childcare responsibilities that interrupted their online classes, poor internet connections that made it nearly impossible to participate in classes, sunken motivation, full-time dead-end jobs to help keep families afloat, and insomnia in the service of peace and quiet and some semblance of teenage autonomy.

So when our principal recently distributed a list of 60 kids who had not yet complied with the Los Angeles Unified School District’s vaccine mandate – which for them would mean a return to distance learning in January – it felt cruel not to intervene.

A few students I spoke to said they planned to get vaccinated but had waited until the last minute. Some didn’t realize that a mobile vaccine unit regularly came to our school.

Only two of the students I spoke to were opposed to getting the vaccine. One was resolute and resigned to leaving the school.

Opinions in your inbox: Get a digest of our takes on current events every day

The other said he’d gotten COVID-19 last year. He thought that natural immunity would protect him and said that several thousand people had died from the vaccine. I asked where he’d read that, and he showed me where the Centers for Disease Control website listed the number of people who, despite being fully vaccinated, had died from the virus.

It wasn’t difficult to help him realize he had misinterpreted the data. The hard part, he told me, would be convincing his father.

A lot of students, it turned out, were contending with parents who – despite the fact that everyone who attends school has already received many other vaccinations – were against getting a COVID-19 vaccination.

When our principal recently distributed a list of 60 kids who had not complied with the Los Angeles Unified School District’s vaccine mandate, it felt cruel not to intervene.

I offered to speak to parents on behalf of anyone who thought I could help. Many of these parents speak only Spanish, and I do not. But I did advise students about presenting a strong argument to their fearful and suspicious parents. I suggested they focus on the educational support system they will lose if they have to leave our school.

Flow of misinformation is relentless

But Spanish language media and Facebook, these kids told me, inflict a relentless stream of terrifying COVID misinformation on their parents, including the lie that the vaccine is more dangerous than the disease.

I did end up calling some parents on behalf of students. Our conversations were polite and respectful, perhaps because I began by conveying to them how great their kids are and how fond I am of them and how heartbroken I would be if they left.

Emotional appeals, I always teach my students, are cheap, but they're often effective. In this case, my appeals were honest. I really will be heartbroken if I lose any students, especially if they end up back home in distance learning.

I did not offer the parents my opinion about the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines. It is not my expertise, and I cannot, nor would I ever, say that we ought never be wary of our government, which has lied to us on many occasions about many things, or the pharmaceutical industry, which, along with saving and extending countless lives, has an ugly history of malfeasance.

What I told the parents was that a nephew of mine is a professor of public health and so is a cousin and that another nephew is a professor of medicine, and that all of them believe the vaccines to be safe and effective and that getting vaccinated is the right and responsible thing to do, and that I trust them as professionals and as good people.

Ultimately, though, I think what was most persuasive was that those parents and guardians trusted me because they know I care about their kids. One of the first things I learned, more than 30 years ago, about effective teaching is its dependence on trust. Building trust requires hard work, commitment, fairness, respect and the reciprocation of trust. And love.

Tears and prayers, and then the shot

In the days after those phone calls, students showed me their signed vaccine permission forms. One girl said her mother was trembling and crying and praying as she signed it. The girl said she was scared too, but she went through with it and proudly showed me the bandage on her shoulder.

One boy told me his father had appreciated my call but still would not allow him to get the shot. He said his dad lives in another school district, one without a vaccine mandate, and had insisted that the son come live with him to attend school in person when our mandate takes effect.

One student, who said his parents were hopelessly brainwashed by propaganda on Spanish-language social media, said he’d gotten vaccinated anyway. He’d warned his mother and father that if they didn’t sign the form, he would forge their signatures. He didn’t like exploiting the disempowerment of their immigration status, but he felt justified.

I asked if surviving the shot helped his parents overcome some of their fear. He laughed and said he’d gotten very tired from the second dose. And when his mother came home and found him asleep, she thought he was dead.

Of the 60 students on the list our principal handed us, only 10 remain unvaccinated. But they are among more than 30,000 throughout the district, and that fact compelled the school district to push back the deadline until Fall 2022.

I’m glad no one from our school or any other school in the district will be forced back into distance learning for now, and I’m encouraged that resistance has upended a top-down mandate.

I just wish that resistance had been against standardized testing mandates that encroach on teaching and learning or almost any of the other top-down dictates made by so-called educators who don’t seem to know much about the students we are trying to educate.

But this triumph of self-determination is an empty one for me. I’m tired of the pandemic. Tired of trying to communicate with students through masks – mine and theirs. I’m apprehensive about the current COVID spike and disappointed, and a little ashamed as an educator, that so many people in our community and in our country are so ill-informed, illogical and irrational.

We can do a lot better. I hope it isn’t too late.

Larry Strauss has been a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992. He is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and the author of more than a dozen books, including "Students First and Other Lies: Straight Talk From a Veteran Teacher" and his new novel, "Light Man." Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss