California to require COVID-19 vaccination for schoolchildren, governor says


California is poised to impose the country’s first coronavirus vaccine mandate for schoolchildren, a move announced Friday that could push other states to follow as many did after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the first statewide stay-at-home order in the U.S. during the early days of the pandemic.

Newsom said the mandate won’t take effect for all children until the U.S. government has finished fully vetting the vaccines for two age groups — 12 to 15 and five to 11. That means those in seventh to 12th grades probably will have until July to get their shots. It will be even longer for children in kindergarten through sixth grades because the government has yet to approve any COVID-19 vaccine for that age group.

California will grant exemptions for medical reasons, plus religious and personal beliefs. The rules for those exemptions will be written after the state hears comments from the public. Any student without an exemption who refuses to get the vaccine would be forced to do independent study at home.

The mandate eventually will affect more than 6.7 million public and private school students in the country’s most populous state. California already has a mask requirement for schoolchildren.

“We have to do more,” Newsom said during a news conference at a San Francisco middle school after visiting with some Grade 7 students. “We want to end this pandemic. We are all exhausted by it.”

The federal government has fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for anyone over 16 and has given emergency authorization to vaccinate those 12 to 15. Full endorsement for that age group is likely within a few months. Vaccines for children five to 11 are still in the testing stage.

California has one of the highest vaccine rates in the country — 84 per cent of people 12 and older have gotten at least one shot, and 70 per cent are fully vaccinated. But the state has a vocal minority skeptical of both the vaccine and the government’s assurances of its safety. Last month, more than a thousand people gathered at the state Capitol to protest vaccine mandates.

A small number of school districts countrywide have imposed their own vaccine mandates, including five in California. 

But other states have resisted imposing pandemic rules on schools, including a new law in Kentucky that overturned a statewide mask mandate.

Newsom has been one of the most aggressive governors on coronavirus restrictions, issuing the country’s first statewide stay-at-home order in March 2020 and more recently requiring California’s roughly 2.2 million health-care workers to get vaccinated to keep their jobs.

The governor was emboldened after easily defeating a recall effort last month fuelled by anger over his handling of the pandemic. Newsom says he interpreted his landslide victory as an endorsement of his vaccine policies.

Newsom hasn’t backed all vaccine mandates, however. He recently opposed a similar requirement for prison guards that a federal judge imposed. Critics used that example to say Newsom is driven more by politics than science, noting the labour union of corrections officers had donated to his campaign to defeat the recall.

Infections dropping

Newsom’s announcement comes as infections in most of California have dropped markedly. The statewide positivity rate for the last week was 2.8 per cent, and the average number of daily cases was about 6,355, roughly half what it was when the latest surge peaked in mid-August. Hospitalizations have fallen by 40 per cent.

California’s largest teachers’ unions supported the directive, as did the California Association of School Boards. Dr. Peter N. Bretah, president of the California Medical Association, said the group “strongly supports” the vaccine mandate for students.

“This is not a new idea. We already require vaccines against several known deadly diseases before students can enrol in schools,” he said. “The Newsom administration is simply extending existing public health protections to cover this new disease, which has caused so much pain and suffering across our state, our nation and the entire globe over the last 18 months.”

Until now, Newsom had left the decision on student vaccine mandates to local school districts, leading to a variety of different orders. In Los Angeles, a vaccine mandate for eligible students is set to take effect in January.

Newsom’s plan does not override those plans. He said districts can “accelerate” the requirements, and he expected many will.

The vaccine mandate also would apply to teachers and staff in K-12 public and private schools. Newsom already had required them to either get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing, but once the mandate for students takes effect, the testing option won’t be available for teachers anymore.

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