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Forward-thinking school districts that are requiring COVID-19 vaccination for students and staff members alike could use some state muscle behind them. They didn’t get it Friday.
Gov. Gavin Newsom made what was expected to be a forceful announcement on school vaccines. Well, he made an announcement. But it disappointed, because his proposal for vaccine mandates moves too slowly and carries too little punch. It doesn't apply to teachers yet and probably won't go into effect until next summer. And it could be easy for families to gain exemptions because of existing state laws.
The two largest school districts in the state already have mandated vaccines for older students, teachers and all other employees who aren’t studying or working remotely. But as the deadline for vaccination approaches for the Los Angeles Unified School District — Oct. 3 for student-athletes and those involved in extracurricular activities, Oct. 15 for staff members — thousands of students and employees aren’t on track to meet the deadlines. Some employees are saying that instead of getting a shot, they’ll retire, switch to independent study or try to find another job in a district without the requirements. (The San Diego Unified School District just passed its new mandates Tuesday, so it's too early to gauge the resistance.)
The latter is especially troubling because California schools already are short-handed and most of them are trying to hire more teachers, counselors, nurses and bus drivers.
Vaccine mandates for teachers and other school employees at the district level are a little bit like municipal soda taxes. People who don't want to pay the tax can simply go to the next city to buy soda. And teachers and other staffers can move to another district to avoid mandates. School boards also might shy away from mandates lest recall efforts be launched against them. That’s why the state shouldn’t leave it to California’s more than 1,000 individual school districts to pass vaccine mandates. A California-wide rule also would keep employees and parents from district shopping to escape vaccination requirements.
Newsom announced Friday that students must receive their COVID-19 shots starting with the term after the vaccines receive full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Students 16 and older already have that approval. But although 12- to 15-year-olds are eligible for the vaccine, it's still authorized under emergency use for this age group, and younger kids aren't even eligible yet.
L.A. Unified requires vaccination for students who are 12 or older, though it would be a wiser move, scientifically and politically, to wait for full FDA approval for those under 16, which is the policy at San Diego schools.
Newsom's mandate is far behind both districts by not requiring the vaccine for 16-year-olds, even with full FDA approval, until all students in grades seven through 12 are fully approved. That makes no sense. Moreover, his proposed time frame means that unless the FDA approval happens before the end of 2021, the vaccine requirement won't kick in until July 2022.
In addition, Newsom indicated that the state Department of Public Health would draw up regulations that provide exemptions for religious and personal beliefs. That's because, though there are no such exemptions for the other 10 vaccines required for public school students, such as for measles or polio, that flexibility is required by law for any vaccine added to the list by regulation rather than legislation. But it leaves an enormous loophole for vaccine-hesitant families, to the point of making the mandate almost useless. It would have been good to see Newsom swing for the fences on this one, using his emergency powers to require vaccines without personal belief exceptions. We need people to be vaccinated now, not when the Legislature meets next year.
When it comes to requiring school employees to be vaccinated, Newsom said he would wait until President Biden’s rules for the vaccination of federal employees are drawn up and adopted. That's a weak move; districts already are starting to move forward with vaccination rules for staff and need the support of the state as they do so. And it would help districts that already have passed mandates to keep operating and smoothly as possible.
In the absence of a firm mandate from Newsom, schools that require vaccination can expect some disruption, though most employees and families are expected to fall in line, which will be safer for everyone. Good for L.A. Unified for sticking to its policy; its intent focus on safety has already been paying off in reduced coronavirus cases.
No one asked for the arrival of the Delta variant. We all thought reopening schools would be simpler and more normal this year. But the easily transmitted variant is here, and it’s imperative not to let it chase everyone back behind closed doors — especially students. That is most effectively done by vaccinating everyone who’s medically eligible and requiring masks indoors. And while Newsom’s announcement of forthcoming mandates was certainly much better than nothing, it wasn’t what the state’s schools need right now.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.