Who can opt out of school COVID vaccine mandate? California lawmakers eye crackdown
When Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week that California would require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19, a critical caveat was tucked within the nation-leading announcement: Parents can opt their children out of inoculation based on personal beliefs.
Newsom did not define the criteria for obtaining those exemptions, leaving the task to state public health officials. Now, lawmakers are expressing concerns that allowing broad exemptions in the mandate will undermine the state's effort to protect schools if too many families decide against vaccination.
Under California law, students are allowed to skip vaccines required for in-person attendance at K-12 schools after a doctor says it's medically necessary to do so. Because the law only applies to previously approved immunizations, the state must offer broader personal belief exemptions for all newly mandated vaccines unless lawmakers and Newsom override that requirement.
Any discussion on vaccine mandates is likely to set off a feverish debate all too familiar in Sacramento. Changes to school vaccine laws led to intense deliberations, prolonged protests and arrests when California ended exemptions based on religious or philosophical beliefs in 2015 for other shots required for school, and in 2019 when lawmakers created stricter requirements for medical exemptions.
"Personal belief exemptions are a huge loophole, and that's why they were removed six years ago," said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). "And it's why they should be removed for COVID-19."
Newsom announced Friday that the state would require students at all public and private schools to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, a mandate that would take effect for grades seven through 12 after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approves the shot for children ages 12 and older. Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is fully approved for ages 16 and older, and there is an emergency authorization in place for ages 12 to 15.
After FDA approval, state public health officials would begin a rulemaking process that includes public comment to draft California's mandate, which would go into effect during the following school term — either Jan. 1 or July 1 — in order to provide time for scheduling vaccinations.
The governor's office said teachers and school staff will be held to the same standard and timeline as students under the new vaccine requirement. Currently, teachers and staff can provide proof of vaccination or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests.
Requirements for students in kindergarten through sixth grade would be phased in at a future date after the FDA approves the vaccine for that age group.
"Adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccines is a critical step," said Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), who in September attempted to shepherd a last-minute bill through the Legislature that would have required Californians to show proof of vaccination to enter many indoor businesses and implemented requirements for public- and private-sector workers to be fully vaccinated or regularly tested.
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council approved an ordinance requiring people to show proof that they are vaccinated against COVID-19 when entering indoor restaurants, shopping malls, movie theaters, hair and nail salons and other venues. Wicks said lawmakers will need to continue looking at vaccine rules when they return to the Capitol in January, particularly those regarding immunizations required for school.
"My personal preference is having the most strict mandate that we can get passed in the Legislature and implemented," Wicks said.
The state is required to offer waivers for new mandatory student inoculations after language was included in a 2015 law authored by Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) that eliminated personal belief exemptions for the 10 vaccines currently needed to attend school.
When Senate Bill 277 was signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, previous requirements for obtaining a personal belief exemption were removed from state law. Most recently, an exemption based on religious or personal beliefs required parents to meet with a doctor about the risks and benefits of vaccines prior to being granted a waiver, but the state could make the COVID-19 vaccine criteria more or less stringent than that.
"It's very open-ended and up to the administration to define how this will be implemented," said Pan, whose 2012 law added that requirement. "There's a lot of problematic ambiguity right now. Our laws were not written for pandemics, they were written for routine childhood vaccinations."
Pan is among the lawmakers considering legislation to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of school shots that qualify only for medical waivers or to craft a narrower exemption for personal beliefs, such as limiting them to religious objections. Though the state public health department is poised to adopt regulations for the COVID-19 vaccine mandate and exemptions, anything passed by lawmakers and signed by Newsom would supersede those decisions.
"I think it's likely we have to address this," Pan said of the Legislature. "We don't want schools closing down or classes in quarantine. If you have a loophole or gap that allows too many students to remain unvaccinated, then you won't have a school that is safe where students can learn. We have already had enough disruptions."
Newsom's office would not comment on whether the governor would support legislation to eliminate personal belief exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine.
The governor has said the state's process offers an "accommodating" personal belief exemption and will provide adequate time to hesitant parents to talk to their doctors and school nurses. He said his own daughter, who recently turned 12 years old and is eligible for the vaccine, has not yet received it because she has "a series of other shots" to get first.
"I believe that how we framed it will provide adequacy not only in notice, but opportunity to meet with their primary care physicians or school nurses ... maybe they have some existing anxieties," Newsom said of the new vaccination requirement.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Newsom has championed some of the nation’s strongest coronavirus restrictions, adding vaccine mandates for all healthcare workers and requiring those who work for the state to provide proof of vaccination or submit to regular testing. But his orders have been inconsistent: Newsom has not required corrections employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, despite recommendations from a federal court-appointed receiver overseeing medical care inside prisons who argued a mandate is necessary to prevent major outbreaks and deaths.
"There is no distinction to why we should have a mandate in one case and not in the other," said Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin), who challenged Newsom in the unsuccessful recall election last month. "But we know the reason — these decisions are purely motivated by politics."
Megan Bacigalupi, executive director of the parent group Open Schools CA, said Newsom missed an opportunity to reach out to hesitant parents with his vaccine mandate.
"I talk to parents every day. There are some parents who will never vaccinate, but for others, they are looking at it and asking, 'What is the benefit?'" Bacigalupi said. "There are a lot of parents who will say, 'COVID isn’t a material risk to my child, but I will vaccinate for the betterment of society.' But, if their children are vaccinated, they don’t want to do asymptomatic testing, quarantining and masks at school. I think the governor and public health officials missed an opportunity to make clear what vaccinations mean in terms of ending some of these mitigation measures."
Catherine Flores Martin of the California Immunization Coalition said that varying vaccine rules by school district is problematic and that students, teachers and campus staff should have the same obligation to be vaccinated.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, all employees are required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15, with exemptions for religious or medical reasons. However, the district's mandate for students to be fully vaccinated by the start of the second semester in January only includes a medical exemption, not one based on religious views.
Flores Martin said it could be an overwhelming amount of work for school nurses to track student vaccine records if there are different exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccination than other required inoculations. Since California law requires the state to offer personal belief exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine, she said it makes sense for the Legislature to weigh in.
"I think this should go to lawmakers," she said.
Times staff writer Taryn Luna contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.