PALMDALE — California became the first state in the nation to require all eligible public, private and charter school students to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced, Friday, at a San Francisco middle school.
Students will be required to be vaccinated for in-person learning following the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the COVID-19 vaccine for each grade span — ages 12 and older in seventh through 12th grade and ages five to 11 in kindergarten through sixth grade. That could be as soon as Jan. 1, or not until July 1.
Only the Pfizer vaccine is fully approved for people ages 16 and older. The vaccine is also available under emergency use authorization for individuals 12 through 15 years of age.
“The state already requires that students are vaccinated against viruses that cause measles, mumps, and rubella — there’s no reason why we wouldn’t do the same for COVID-19,” the governor said in a statement. “Today’s measure, just like our first-in-the-nation school masking and staff vaccination requirements, is about protecting our children and school staff, and keeping them in the classroom.”
Students would be granted religious and medical exemptions, but the rules for how the state would apply them have not been written yet. Any student who refuses to take the vaccine would be forced to complete an independent study course at home.
Roughly 84% of everyone 12 and older in California has received at least one dose of the vaccine, one of the highest rates in the country. But Newsom said Friday that just 63.5% of people between 12 and 17 have received at least one dose.
Newsom’s announcement comes as COVID-19 infections in most of California have dropped markedly in the last month.
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 students went back to school
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. A vaccine mandate for eligible students is set to take effect in January for Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school district. San Diego Unified School District also has a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all eligible employees and students.
None of the 12 school districts in the Antelope Valley has a mandate for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We will follow all guidelines from the state and county,” Donna Campbell, assistant superintendent of Special Education/Student Services for Palmdale School District, said, Friday, in statement.
Gina Whipple, president of the Teachers Association of Lancaster, the union that represents teachers in the Lancaster School District, welcomed the governor’s mandate.
“I support any measures that will ensure the health and safety of students, staff and the community,” Whipple wrote in a text message. “It’s a step in the right direction to help us all return to a traditional school experience.”
Lancaster School District Superintendent Michele Bowers wrote in an email that Newsom’s announcement shows that “although many individuals have already chosen to get the vaccination, there remains a need to further address the potential spread of COVID-19 in our schools.”
“Vaccination rates in our community would suggest that there is still work to be done to build trust and confidence in the vaccine,” Bowers wrote. “Once additional clarification and guidance is received, we will work to ensure that our families and staff have the appropriate information and time to make informed decisions regarding options available to them.”
Bowers added that while there are more questions than answers regarding the governor’s mandate, the district will continue to work as closely as possible with the school community to keep them informed and to be sensitive to their concerns as they consider next steps.
“At this time, we do not have plans to advance the vaccination mandate timeline for staff or students,” Bowers wrote. “We will continue to practice our current safety protocols and plan to conduct weekly testing of employees as needed beginning (Monday).”
Dan Shy, president the Antelope Valley Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers in the Antelope Valley Union High School District, said Newsom overstepped his authority.
“This issue should be determined by local school Boards who know their communities far better than Newsom,” Shy wrote in a text message. “But I am not surprised. I expect nothing less from the emperor of The People’s Republic of California.”
Antelope Valley Union High School District issued its own statement in response to the governor’s mandate:
“We are aware of the governor’s announcement this afternoon mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for all students,” the district said. “Our district staff will assess the new mandate and prepare for its implementation in accordance with the established timeline.”
Debra Duardo, Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools, issued a statement Friday in support of Newsom’s announcement concerning the required vaccination of eligible staff and students.
“Our students deserve stability, access to school-based resources, services and support,” Duardo said. “They 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. I am grateful for today’s decision, underscoring California’s commitment to ensure the wellbeing of students, families, and staff.”
Duardo acknowledged the hesitancy among some parents in regard to the vaccine.
“We are mindful that there is still work to do to build trust and confidence in the vaccine among our school communities,” she said.
Toward that end the LA County Office of Education will convene a working taskforce of to support the implementation of the vaccine requirement in schools throughout LA County.
To date, LA County schools’ robust safety measures have included regular health checks for everyone going onto school campuses, required use of masks regardless of vaccination status, routine COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and isolation of cases, increased sanitization and cleaning of schools, as well as upgraded ventilation.
“This additional step provides another critical layer of safety,” Duardo said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.