California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday announced the nation’s first coronavirus vaccination mandate for schoolchildren, a plan that will have all elementary through high school students get the shots once the vaccine gains final approval from the U.S. government for different age groups.
The government has fully approved the COVID-19 vaccine for those 16 and over but only granted an emergency authorization for anyone 12 to 15. Once federal regulators fully approve the vaccine for that group, the state will require students in seventh through 12th grades to get vaccinated in both public and private schools, Newsom’s office said.
The state will require the COVID-19 vaccine for students in kindergarten through sixth grade only after the federal government has given final approval for anyone 5 to 11.
The announcement comes as infections in most of California have dropped markedly in the last month. But Newsom has been emboldened after easily defeating a recall effort last month following a campaign where he emphasized his commitment to vaccine mandates to end the pandemic.
In Los Angeles County—the nation’s largest, with more than 10 million residents—just 1.7% of people tested for the virus have it and daily infections are down by half in the last month, when most kids went back to school.
“These numbers are amazingly low given that 3,000-plus schools are now open countywide,” county Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Thursday.
She noted that though the number of outbreaks in schools has increased slightly in recent weeks, the overall number is small and largely related to youth sports.
The state’s vaccine mandate would take effect the semester after the federal government grants final approval. If it comes in January, then the mandate would take effect in July.
Students would be granted religious and medical exemptions, but the rules for how the state would apply those exemptions have not been written yet. Any student who refuses to take the vaccine would be forced to complete an independent study course at home.
Until now, Newsom had left the decision on student vaccine mandates to local school districts, leading to a variety of different orders across some of the state’s largest districts.
Long Beach Unified did not have a mandate for students. However, Los Angeles and Oakland Unified did—mandating all students over 12 be vaccinated by a certain deadline. Earlier this week, the San Diego Unified school board approved a mandate that staff and students age 16 and older be fully vaccinated by Dec. 20.
A spokesman for the Long Beach Unified School District said local officials were pleased with the governor’s decision.
“In LBUSD, we have seen the beneficial effects of having a high percentage of our employees vaccinated, and we’re beginning to see the same benefits among our population of secondary students, many of whom also have been vaccinated,” LBUSD spokesman Chris Eftychiou said in an email.
Eftychiou said the LBUSD estimates 80% of its staff is vaccinated. Unvaccinated staff members are required to undergo weekly testing.
The district doesn’t know exactly how many of its older students who are eligible for the vaccine are already vaccinated. Across the entire city, numbers from Long Beach show 66.5% of residents between 12 and 17 are vaccinated.
The district had also been regularly testing its students but paused that policy last month because of low positivity rates. It has since begun using a randomized testing model for asymptomatic students. The district now tests 10% of each school’s unvaccinated population weekly, according to the LBUSD.
Newsom has made it a point of pride to be the first in the nation to issue a variety of pandemic-related school mandates.
In August, California became the first state in the U.S. to require all teachers and staff in K-12 public and private schools to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. Newsom also issued a school mask mandate earlier in the summer for indoor classes that applies to all teachers and students.
Staff Writer Jason Ruiz contributed to this report.
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