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California to Require COVID Vaccine for K-12 Students

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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)

All eligible K-12 students in California will have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend classes in person, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday.

The new statewide mandate, the first of its kind in the nation, will go into effect once federal regulators fully approve the vaccine for younger age groups.

“We want to end this pandemic. We are all exhausted by it,” Newsom said at a press conference at James Denman Middle School in San Francisco. "We are humbled by the challenge, but we want to get this thing done."

Families who choose not to vaccinate their kids will be able to enroll students in independent study outside of classrooms, but those students will not be allowed to attend in-person classes unless they have a medical or religious exemption.

Schools are "closing frequently" in states that don't take a data-driven approach, Newsom said. "That's why we recognize our responsibility to do more and what we're announcing here today."

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has already fully approved the COVID vaccine for those 16 and over, but only granted an emergency authorization for kids 12 to 15. Once federal regulators fully approve the vaccine for that younger age group, students in seventh through 12th grades will be required to get it.

Based on when federal regulators grant that approval, Newsom said he expects to enact the statewide regulations by either January 1 or July 1.

The vaccine will subsequently be required for students in kindergarten through sixth grades after it receives final federal approval for children 5 to 11.

Newsom cited the disparate politics of California's many school districts for his decision to hold off on the student vaccine requirement until full FDA approval is given.

"We've got 1,000 school districts, we've got a lot of different points of views and opinions, a lot of regionality, a lot of distinctions. We thought this was the best and most appropriate next step for California," he said.

"We recognize in a state that's larger than 21 states combined, that one size cannot fit all, with one caveat, and that's baseline expectations," Newsom added. "That's what we're providing here, a baseline expectation."

More than 6 million students attend K-12 schools in California, representing some 12% of all students in the country.

The announcement comes as COVID-19 infections across most of California have dropped markedly in the last month, and just weeks after Newsom easily defeated a recall effort, emboldening his drive to impose additional statewide vaccine mandates.

The new rule adds the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of immunizations children in California must receive in order to attend school in person. Students are already required to be vaccinated against a host of diseases, including measles, chicken pox, polio and tetanus.

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When the new order takes effect, all school staff must also be vaccinated and will no longer have the option to take weekly tests as an alternative.

Newsom pointed to the success of the San Francisco school district, which already has a staff vaccine requirement, and has only reported 46 new COVID infections among its staff of nearly 10,000 since in-person school resumed in August.

"San Francisco Unified School District has overwhelmingly succeeded in getting staff across the spectrum vaccinated," he said.

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. Five districts in California have already imposed their own requirements, including Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest school district, which is set to take effect in January.

Under Newsom's mandate, those districts can proceed with their plans and "accelerate" the requirements.

Dr. Peter N. Bretan, president of the California Medical Association, said his organization “strongly supports” the governor's decision.

“This is not a new idea. We already require vaccines against several known deadly diseases before students can enroll in schools,” he said in a statement. “The Newsom administration is simply extending existing public health protections to cover this new disease, which has caused so much pain and suffering across our state, our nation and the entire globe over the last 18 months.”

Newsom has made it a point of pride to be the first in the nation to issue a variety of pandemic-related school mandates.

In August, California became the first state to require all teachers and staff in K-12 public and private schools to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. Newsom also issued a school mask mandate earlier in the summer for indoor classes that applies to all teachers and students.

"I believe we are the first state in America to move forward with this [new vaccine] mandate, but I do not believe by any stretch we'll be the last state," he said.

This post includes additional reporting from KQED's Holly McDede and The Associated Press.

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