State Watch

California delays coronavirus vaccine mandate for schools

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California is sticking with its coronavirus vaccine mandate for schoolchildren, but it won’t happen until at least the summer of 2023, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration announced Thursday.

Last year, California was the first state to announce it would require all schoolchildren to receive the coronavirus vaccine. But it hasn’t happened yet because Newsom said he was waiting for regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to give final approval to the vaccine for school-aged children.

At the time, Newsom estimated the mandate would take effect for the start of the 2022-23 school year. But while federal regulators have authorized use of the coronavirus vaccine for children as young as 5 in an emergency, it has still not given final approval to anyone younger than 16.

As the calendar inches closer to the fall, school administrators had worried they would not have enough time to implement the vaccine mandate.

“So based on these two facts — we don’t have full FDA approval, and we recognize the implementation challenges that schools and school leaders would face — that we are not moving to have a vaccine requirement for schools in this coming academic year and no sooner than July 2023,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in an interview.

The move comes at a time when coronavirus cases and hospitalizations remain low following the winter surge of the omicron variant, but also as authorities struggle to convince parents to vaccinate their children against the virus.

While nearly 75% of California’s population has been vaccinated, rates for children 17 and under are much lower. Just under 34% of children between the ages of 5-11 have received the vaccine, while just over 66.4% of children ages 12-17 have gotten it, according to state data.

“From a perspective of keeping children in schools, this was the right move,” said Christina Hildebrand, president and founder of A Voice for Choice Advocacy, a group that opposes vaccine mandates. “The number of children that are unvaccinated, and if they were removed from school, would have been a much bigger disaster.”

California and Louisiana are the only states that have announced a vaccine mandate for K-12 schools, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. The District of Columbia also has a mandate.

Louisiana’s mandate includes an opt-out for parents, while California’s mandate would allow exemptions for medical reasons and personal beliefs. A medical reason often requires proof from a doctor. But a personal belief exemption is easier to obtain, often requiring a letter from the student or parent stating their objections.

State Sen. Richard Pan, a Democrat from Sacramento who is also a pediatrician, had authored a bill in the state Legislature this year that would have blocked students from using the personal belief exemption to avoid the coronavirus vaccine. But on Thursday, Pan announced he was holding the bill — meaning it will not become law this year — though he said there should still be a focus on boosting child vaccination rates.

“Until children’s access to COVID vaccination is greatly improved, I believe that a state-wide policy to require COVID vaccination in schools is not the immediate priority, although it is an appropriate safety policy for many school districts in communities with good vaccine access,” Pan said in a news release.

Pan did not say he pulled the bill because of a lack of support. A poll by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, found 64% of registered voters support coronavirus vaccine requirements for schools — including 55% of voters who are the parents of school-aged children. The poll was published in February based on a sampling of 8,937 California registered voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

This is the second vaccine-related bill to fail in the California Legislature this year before it even got to a vote. Last month, Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks withdrew a bill that would have forced all California businesses to require coronavirus vaccines for their employees — a decision she attributed to “a new and welcome chapter in this pandemic, with the virus receding for the moment.”

As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have declined, state officials have removed most virus restrictions, no longer requiring masks in schools or other public places.

“Definitely a lot of parents are excited that Sen. Pan is pulling this bill. It’s one less thing that they have to worry about,” said Jonathan Zachreson, the parent of three high-school children who founded the advocacy group Reopen California Schools. “The fact is kids ages 5-11 have had access to vaccines for quite some time and their low vaccination rates, I think, is evident of how parents feel about the vaccine.”

Other vaccine-related bills are still alive in the California Legislature, including one that would let schoolchildren 12 and older receive the coronavirus vaccine without their parents’ permission. Currently, California requires parental permission for vaccines unless they are specifically to prevent a sexually transmitted disease.

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Associated Press reporter Don Thompson contributed.

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