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Newsom Mandates COVID Vaccines or Regular Tests for All California Teachers

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Gavin Newsom, without a tie, speaks into a bank of microphones in front of a board with colorful letters that spell "The Great Kindness Challenge."
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference after touring an elementary school on March 16, 2021, in Alameda.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

After months of reluctance, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a mandate on Wednesday that all California teachers and staff working on school campuses be vaccinated for COVID-19 or be tested weekly.

It's the first such statewide mandate in the nation.

"We think this is the right thing to do, and we think this is a sustainable way to keep schools open," Newsom said at a Wednesday press conference at Carl B. Munck Elementary School in Oakland.

Newsom said the mandate would apply to staff as well as teachers, including "custodial staff, the bus drivers, folks that are critical to supporting the entire school ecosystem."

Until now, Newsom had stopped short of such a requirement: He spent the past several months voicing confidence in school safety protocols that were based on increased ventilation and masking, while urging all school employees to be vaccinated.

At the Wednesday press conference, Newsom was flanked by Oakland school officials and representatives, including Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, who said there was "no substitute" for in-person learning, which vaccines make possible.

"Our children, especially children from low-income communities — they cannot afford to take steps backward on their education," she said. "As one of the greatest artists of all time, Marvin Gaye, reminded us: Save the children."

Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Staffers at schools statewide will have various options to prove they've been vaccinated, according to the state's health order: They can present either a COVID-19 vaccination record card, a photocopy of the card, a photo of their vaccination card on a phone (or another electronic device), alternate documentation of vaccination from a health care provider, a digital record with a QR code compatible with a SMART Health Card reader, or documentation of vaccination from other contracted employers.

Staffers who are unvaccinated, even if they don't have symptoms, must get COVID-19 tests at least once weekly with PCR or antigen testing, according to the California Department of Public Health. Those previously infected with the coronavirus are not exempt from the testing or vaccine requirements.

Additionally, schools will be required to have a plan in place to track which workers are vaccinated and to track the testing. Schools also must report this data to local public health departments.

The state's health order applies only to K-12 schools, not higher education. Some funding is available to help schools implement the new requirements, including subsidized COVID-19 testing provided by the California Department of Public Health.

Before the announcement, districts across the state formed a patchwork of various vaccination rules for school employees. San José Unified, San Francisco Unified, San Diego Unified and others were already requiring teachers to either be vaccinated or undergo regular testing. Other districts throughout California were requiring neither.

Both the University of California and California State University systems have issued vaccine mandates for students. The UC will also require faculty to be vaccinated.

Megan Bacigalupi, the founder and executive director of OpenSchoolsCA, said this requirement should have come sooner. Her children’s district, Oakland Unified, started its school year on Monday.

“I wish this vaccine requirement would have happened earlier in the summer when it could’ve had a bigger impact,” she said. “I’m certainly happy to see [Newsom] do it, but I don’t know why it took this long.”

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Before the mandate, California teacher vaccines and testing vaccine requirements were negotiated between teachers unions and local school districts. One legal expert told CalMatters that because the vaccines were not yet fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a unilateral mandate from either the state or local districts could be vulnerable to legal challenges.

At Sacramento City Unified, district administrators and the teachers union met on Tuesday afternoon to discuss a vaccine or testing requirement for teachers. According to David Fisher, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, no formal agreement was reached, but he said the union and the district appeared to be on the same page.

Fisher said that with the delta variant, vaccinations alone aren’t enough. He said SCTA is calling for weekly testing for even vaccinated teachers who could pass the more contagious delta variant to unvaccinated students or staff.

“I think there should be an increased emphasis on testing,” he said. “While the science becomes more clear, we think universal testing should be a goal.”

In the past two weeks, the state also issued vaccination or regular testing mandates for state employees and health care workers. On Sunday, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second largest teachers union, added to this momentum by calling for vaccine requirements for educators.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Biden's chief medical adviser on COVID-19, said Tuesday morning in an interview on MSNBC, “I’m going to upset some people on this, but I think we should [require teacher vaccinations]. We’ve had 615,000-plus deaths, and we are in a major surge now as we’re going into the fall, into the school season. This is very serious business.”

Bacigalupi said she’s hoping Newsom will issue a stronger vaccination mandate once the vaccines are officially approved by the FDA.

“I’m assuming that districts and the governor are potentially waiting for the vaccine to be fully authorized,” she said. “Once it’s fully authorized, I don’t understand why it wouldn’t be fully mandated.”

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