The Alpine Union School District was one of the first in San Diego County to reopen last school year during the pandemic and was one of a few that tried — unsuccessfully — to defy the state’s school mask rule, arguing that parents deserve to choose whether their kids wear masks.
Now the small district is working on a way that would allow students who don’t get a COVID-19 vaccine to continue learning in person, even if vaccines are required by the state for in-person school attendance.
The district is creating a learning option called Alpine Choice Academy, where unvaccinated students can learn together at an off-campus location, getting instruction from district teachers.
The goal is to create as regular a school day as possible for these students, Supt. Rich Newman said.
Newman said he doesn’t want to take “a political stance” on whether students should be required to be vaccinated. He added that he is in favor of the vaccine and has received three doses, including a booster.
Regardless of a family’s political views, he said, students whose parents choose not to have them vaccinated should not receive a lesser quality education.
“I don’t want students caught in the crossfire of politics,” Newman said.
“For whatever reason, if the parent chooses not to vaccinate them, I still believe that a student deserves every opportunity to reach their potential,” Newman said. “These are kids. They don’t have a say in what their education is. They’re caught in the middle of a political environment right now.”
When parents protesting the vaccine mandate kept their kids home from school on one day in October, 41% of Alpine’s approximately 1,500 students were absent, he said.
That sent a message, he said, that potentially many of his students would no longer come to school once the state mandate kicks in starting next year.
Newman said he has been meeting with several parents, including people from the anti-mandate group Let Them Breathe, to work on plans for Alpine Choice Academy.
Newman said he believes it’s his moral responsibility as an educator to have students learning in person. He said that’s why Alpine was one of the first districts in the county to reopen early last school year while most others were closed to in-person learning.
Newman noted that educators overwhelmingly agree that in-person learning is superior to independent study and other remote learning options. When learning at home, students miss out on in-person interaction with teachers and their peers and may not have a parent there to help them, he said.
The district has not yet figured out the details of Alpine Choice Academy, such as where it will be located, Newman said. The academy will not be a separate school, Newman added. It will be part of the district’s independent study program.
Newman’s plans drew mixed reactions from community members. On the district’s Facebook page, some people applauded the idea and some accused Alpine of pandering to parents who want to avoid vaccines, which have long been a requirement for school attendance.
Some accused Newman of segregating unvaccinated students in a “separate but equal” arrangement.
Newman noted that under the state’s mandate, unvaccinated students would be separated from their vaccinated peers since the mandate requires remote learning for unvaccinated students.
“It’s not me saying they can’t come to campus, not at all,” Newman said. “I want every student on campus, every day, 100% of the time.”
Newman said that if mandates happen and the academy doesn’t, then some students would be back at home, learning with packets of classwork.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in October that California’s K-12 public and private school students will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend in-person school.
When that requirement will kick in has not been finalized. State officials have said July 1 is the likely date by which students 12 and older, in grades 7-12, would be required to be vaccinated.
Students will be required to get vaccinated after the Food and Drug Administration fully approves a COVID-19 vaccine for their age groups. Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has emergency-use authorization for children 5 and older.
Full approval for ages 12 to 15 could come soon. Last week, the vaccine makers released findings showing that the shot is effective against COVID for that age group for at least four months after the second dose. The companies have said they intend to apply for full approval of the vaccine for that age group.
The vaccine is fully approved for people 16 and older.