California state leaders seem to be quietly closing the door on the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for schoolchildren.
The California Department of Public Health hasn’t made an announcement, but officials told EdSource that the end of the state’s COVID-19 state of emergency on Feb. 28 effectively ends its current plan to add COVID-19 vaccinations to the list of 10 vaccinations children are required to have to attend school in person.
“We continue to strongly recommend COVID-19 immunization for students and staff to keep everyone safer in the classroom,” stated the email from the department. “Turnkey mobile vaccination services remain available for any K-12 school within the state.”
The statement went on to say that any changes to required K-12 immunizations are properly addressed through the legislative process. There are no bills mandating school vaccinations currently pending in the Legislature.
Much has changed in the 15 months since Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California would be the first state to require schoolchildren to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and then-state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, talked about legislation that would do away with the personal belief exemption and strengthen the mandate.
Now, slightly more than 72% of Californians have had the primary series of COVID-19 vaccinations and 61% of those have had booster shots. More than a third of children ages 5 to 11 and 67% of 12- to 17-year-olds have had their primary series of vaccinations.
In response, last summer the state withdrew a mandate that school staff be vaccinated or tested to remain on campus and rescinded a requirement that everyone wear masks in classrooms.
Pan also decided to put his bill on hold, saying it would be too difficult to implement. State health code calls for students to be checked for required vaccinations when they enter kindergarten and again in seventh grade. The COVID vaccination, which has waning immunity, would have required more frequent checks, Pan said in a previous interview.
But there has been no official announcement about the status of the vaccination mandate and school district officials have been frustrated about the lack of information about it, said Lucerne Valley Unified Superintendent Peter Livingston.
“Let’s wipe this whole COVID vaccination thing off the table,” Livingston said. “Just say it. If it’s over, just say it.”
If the vaccination mandate were to begin on July 1, there is no way the district in western San Bernardino County would be ready, he said.
“I don’t even know what fully vaccinated is,” he said. “Is it one shot, two shots, three shots? Does that make me fully vaccinated?”
On Jan. 3, Livingston sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom requesting clarification about the future of the vaccine mandate, reported the Victorville Daily Press Thursday.
“You have not pulled the order back, which puts school districts in a bind on what or how to communicate to our communities,” the letter read in part. “We have kindergarten parents asking us about this, and we do not have a response since you have been silent on this. Once again your actions (or lack thereof) places the burden of communication, implementation, and enforcement squarely on the shoulders of principals, teachers, staff, administrators, and school boards. These burdens erode the ability of LVUSD to focus on serving students and diminish our ability to foster outstanding educational outcomes.”
Lucerne Valley Unified’s school board was one of the first to pass a resolution proclaiming its opposition to the vaccination mandate. The resolution states that the mandate would infringe on parental rights and the rights of students to a free public education, that children are at lower risk of dying or getting seriously ill from COVID-19, and that people have the right to deny unwanted medical treatment, among other things.
Almost all the district’s families are opposed to the vaccination mandate, he said. “There is no way we could enforce it,” Livingston said. “I frankly wouldn’t. I wouldn’t leave that number of students at home. Judging by what we know now, it wouldn’t make sense. I wouldn’t enforce it.”
The vaccine mandate was to begin as soon as the vaccine was fully approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for each age group: juveniles ages 12-17; and children ages 5-11. July 1 was the earliest the mandate was expected to begin.
Currently, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, including the bivalent booster, have an emergency use authorization for children 6 months of age and older, but have not been fully authorized by the FDA. The two-dose primary series of Novavax COVID vaccines has emergency use authorization for people ages 12 and older.
Since March 2020 when schools were closed in response to the pandemic, the deaths of 92 children ages 17 and younger have been associated with COVID-19, according to the California Department of Public Health.