SAN FRANCISCO – California will become the first U.S. state to require COVID-19 vaccinations for children to attend public and private schools in person in a mandate that could effect millions of students.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday announced that the coronavirus shot will be added to 10 other immunizations already required for school kids, including those for measles and mumps.
Exemptions would be granted for medical reasons or because of religious or personal beliefs but the exemption rules haven't been written yet pending public comment.
Any student without an exemption who refuses to get the vaccine would be forced to do independent study at home.
“We want to end this pandemic. We are all exhausted by it,” Newsom said during a news conference at a San Francisco middle school after visiting with seventh graders.
“Vaccines work. It’s why California leads the country in preventing school closures and has the lowest case rates," Newsom said.
The mandate will be phased in as the U.S. government grants final vaccine approval for age groups. Currently, children 12 to 15 can only get the Pfizer vaccine under an emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Vaccines for children 5 to 11 are still in the testing stage.
Under California's mandate, students in seventh to 12th grades would have to be vaccinated by the semester following full U.S. approval of the shots for their age group, probably meaning by next July. It will be even longer for children in kindergarten through sixth grades.
The mandate eventually will affect more than 6.7 million public and private school students in the nation’s most populous state. California already has a mask requirement for schoolchildren.
Until now, Newsom had left the decision on student vaccine mandates to local school districts, leading to a variety of different orders. In Los Angeles, a vaccine mandate for eligible students is set to take effect in January.
The announcement drew swift reaction from parents, including some who said they should have the final choice of whether to vaccinate their children.
“I’m furious. On so many levels,” said Jenny Monir, a Los Angeles mother of two who said she felt Newsom's mandate was made more for political than public health reasons. “We’re just pawns in an elite game.”
Janet Meadows, whose children are in first grade and preschool, said she’d consider homeschooling her children before vaccinating them. The 41-year-old from Kern County said she’s worried about the health effects of the not-yet-approved shots for children.
“I don’t think we know enough about the vaccine to make our children get it,” she said. “There’s just a lot of unknowns. We don’t need to rush into this right now.”
Others praised Newsom's announcement.
“I’m delighted to see that we’re trying to get this health crisis under control,” said Andrew Patterson, father of an elementary school student in San Francisco. “And we have lots of other vaccine requirements. I don’t see why this one would be any different.”
California has one of the highest vaccine rates in the country — 84% of people 12 and older have gotten at least one shot, and 70% are fully vaccinated. But only 63.5% of children ages 12 to 17 have received a dose and the state has a vocal minority skeptical of both the vaccine and the government’s assurances of its safety.
Newsom has been one of the most aggressive governors on coronavirus restrictions, issuing the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order in March 2020 that was soon followed by 41 other states. More recently, Newsom required California’s roughly 2.2 million health care workers and most state employees to get vaccinated to keep their jobs.
The governor was emboldened after easily defeating a recall effort last month fueled by anger over his handling of the pandemic. He says he interpreted his landslide victory as an endorsement of his vaccine policies.
Newsom hasn’t backed all vaccine mandates, however. He recently opposed a requirement for prison guards that a federal judge imposed. Critics used that example to say Newsom is driven more by politics than science, noting the labor union of corrections officers had donated to his campaign to defeat the recall.
“California kids made the mistake of not giving millions to his campaigns,” Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley tweeted Friday. Kiley was among 46 candidates who ran to replace the governor during the recall election.
Newsom’s announcement comes as COVID-19 infections in most of California have dropped markedly. The statewide positivity rate for the last week was 2.8%, and the average number of daily cases was about 6,355, roughly half what it was when the latest surge peaked in mid-August. Hospitalizations have fallen by 40%.
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.
California’s largest teachers unions back the vaccination mandate, as does the California Association of School Boards.
Associated Press journalists Jocelyn Gecker and Haven Daley in San Francisco, Amy Taxin in Orange County and Terry Chea contributed.