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All California students and school staff will be required to get vaccinated against Covid-19 as soon as January 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday.
The mandate, the nation’s first, applies to all students in kindergarten through 12th grade in public, charter and private schools, and all school employees. It goes into effect in the first semester, either Jan. 1 or July 1, following the Federal Drug Administration’s full approval of the Covid vaccine for each age group. Only the Pfizer vaccine is fully approved for people 16 and older. The Pfizer vaccine also has emergency authorization for use in children between the ages of 12-16.
“We’re mindful we still have work to do, and we are humbled by the challenge. But we want to end this pandemic. We are exhausted, and we want to put this disease behind us,” Newsom said at a middle school in San Francisco as he outlined the state’s plan.
The requirement follows vaccine mandates in several large California school districts for students 12 and over, including Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified and Oakland Unified. Newsom encouraged other districts to enact their own mandates ahead of the state’s plan, Newsom said.
Covid vaccines will be among the roster of 10 other vaccinations, such as polio, mumps and tetanus, that the state requires students to receive before starting school.
The requirement still leaves open the possibility for families to opt out. Because the mandate comes from the governor, and not the Legislature, it allows exemptions for medical, religious or personal reasons. Newsom said he’s confident most families will comply.
“The rules are not new; they are well established. In a way, this is the most predictable announcement that we’ve had in this pandemic,” Newsom said. “Every parent is already familiar with these requirements. This is just another vaccine.”
Students who opt out of the Covid vaccine will not be allowed to attend school in person, but they can enroll in independent study.
Teachers unions and public health advocates supported the governor’s move.
“(We) believe that vaccines are essential to ensuring that our students, school workers and communities are safe. We know that in-person instruction is best for our students, and that vaccines are the most important safeguard to prevent serious illness from COVID-19 infection,” said Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers.
He noted that 89% of the union’s members are already vaccinated against Covid.
The Public Health Institute, an independent nonprofit that promotes global health initiatives, praised the mandate but said it didn’t go far enough. Districts shouldn’t wait for full FDA approval, said the organization’s chief executive officer, Mary Pittman.
“California is leading the country in making bold, brave and science-based recommendations that prioritize health and recovery, but we need to act more quickly to protect our students and their families,” Pittman said. “Vaccines are safe, free and the best way to end this pandemic. (Schools) should … immediately implement vaccine mandates under the current FDA emergency use authorization.”
Debra Duardo, superintendent of schools for Los Angeles County, said the mandate is an important step to keep schools safe for students and staff. To ensure a smooth rollout, she plans to convene a task force of the county’s superintendents to oversee the implementation of the mandate and work with families and health officials.
“We are mindful that there is still work to do to build trust and confidence in the vaccine among our school communities,” she said. “(But students) deserve every opportunity to remain in the classroom learning with their peers, and this is made possible when we move forward and implement those protocols that will allow our schools to remain the safest places for our students, staff, and families.”
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