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California will require students to get COVID-19 vaccine following FDA approval

Arianna Ashley's 5th grade class at Greer Elementary sees her students in cohorts, allowing for social distance and the option of full-time distance learning, Thursday, April 8, 2021.
Andrew Nixon
Arianna Ashley's 5th grade class at Greer Elementary sees her students in cohorts, allowing for social distance and the option of full-time distance learning, Thursday, April 8, 2021.

California will require more than 6.8 million school children at public and private schools to be vaccinated against COVID-19 when the Food and Drug Administration gives the vaccine full approval.

Under a plan announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom Friday, vaccination requirements will be phased in by groups. Students in grades 7-12, most of whom are already eligible for the vaccine, will be required to have the shot by Jan. 1 or July 1, whichever comes first once the shot is granted full FDA approval.

Currently, only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has emergency use authorization from the Federal Drug Administration for children age 12-16. The pharmaceutical company recently requested authorization for children as young as 5 years old.

A mandate for all school staff will also come soon, Newsom said. Currently, school staff can choose between vaccination or regular COVID-19 testing.

“We hope this encourages folks to get vaccinated,” the governor said Friday at a San Francisco school. “We have no trepidation, no hesitancy encouraging local districts to move forward more expeditiously.”

California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd said in a statement that the union supports the move as the "next step" to slow the spread of COVID-19 in schools in addition to testing and other safety measures.

"While recognizing the need for medical and religious exemptions, we believe vaccinations are key for both student and educator safety, keeping our schools open for in-person instruction and for combating this pandemic," Boyd wrote.

The vaccination requirement for students will include exemptions for medical and personal or religious reasons, but the California Legislature could pass a law to end the personal/religious belief exemption.

Vaccinations for California schoolchildren are currently regulated by Senate Bill 277, which passed in June 2015. The legislation was prompted by an outbreak of measles at Disneyland in 2014 that ultimately infected more than 150 people from eight different states, Mexico and Canada.

The legislation also included several options for adding vaccinations to the mandated list. The state Legislature could pass a new statute or amend the law at any time, opting to add a new vaccination with or without a personal belief exemption.

Alternatively, a clause in the law allowed the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to mandate new vaccines, taking into consideration advice from health experts. But if a vaccination is added to the schedule in this way, the legislation stipulates that personal belief exemptions must be offered to parents and students.

A number of California school districts have announced their own plans to require vaccinations, including Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and Culver City. Both Los Angeles and San Diego saw protests of the board votes to authorize the vaccine requirements.

A group of parents recently sent a letter to the San Diego Unified School Board threatening legal action over the district’s vaccine mandate for students 12 and older.

The letter says the group “strongly believes the decision whether to vaccinate a child for COVID-19 should be made solely by the child’s parents, after consultation with the child’s doctor, not by an individual school or school district.”

The parents also argue school districts lack authority to mandate new vaccines for students, though a statewide mandate may undercut that argument.

Legal experts have said individual school districts could face court challenges without state action.

Leslie Jacobs, a professor of constitutional law at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and director of the Capital Center for Law & Policy, said legal scholars “always” expect to see constitutional challenges to vaccine mandates. In the case of school vaccination mandates, she said those challenges “should not be strong” and are unlikely to succeed in court given past rulings.

Ultimately, it’s unclear where courts would land on the issue. Jacobs said schools mandating COVID-19 vaccinations are “pushing the envelope” legally.

Sasha Hupka contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 CapRadio