Students and teachers in masks at Gateway School in Santa Cruz
California school employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

California’s new vaccine requirement for schools: What you need to know

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday required that all school staff be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to regular testing, making California one of only two states with such a mandate. With the policy set to roll out Thursday, here’s a rundown of how things will look in schools.

California on Wednesday became the second state in the nation, following Hawaii, to impose a vaccination mandate for school staff.

It comes as schools across the state — including here in Santa Cruz County — are reopening amid worries about the highly contagious Delta variant.

Here are the basics:

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What do the rules require?

California school employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to at least a weekly test proving they are not infected with the coronavirus.

Gov. Gavin Newsom had already announced a similar policy for employees of state agencies and an absolute mandate, with limited religious and medical exceptions, for state health care workers. Some cities including Los Angeles and San Francisco have imposed similar rules for their workers.

When will this take effect?

The governor’s office says the policy rolls out Thursday, and school staff must be vaccinated and in full compliance by Oct. 15.

What do we know about vaccination rates for teachers?

The California Teachers Association has said 90% or more of its members have reported they are already vaccinated against COVID-19, and the union pushed hard for early access over the winter to doses of the vaccine.

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What are the rules at local school districts?

The Newsom announcement comes as several large California school districts have announced similar policies in recent days, including San Francisco Unified and Long Beach Unified. San Francisco will require proof of vaccination for all faculty starting Sept. 7.

Any employee not vaccinated would have to be tested at least weekly for coronavirus infection. The school district includes roughly 10,000 employees and has received vaccination verification for about half.

Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school system, has gone further than the state policy in terms of requiring testing. Whereas the state is requiring only the unvaccinated to submit to regular testing, L.A. Unified requires weekly testing of all students and employees, whether or not they are vaccinated.

Officials took this step because of evidence indicating that vaccinated people can catch and transmit the highly contagious Delta variant. The L.A. Unified testing plan will require collecting and processing about 100,000 tests per day.

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What about colleges?

Both the University of California and the Cal State systems have announced strict vaccination requirements for all students and staff, who will be turned away from in-person classes and indoor campus facilities if they are not inoculated. Exceptions will be made for those with medical or religious exemptions. Last week, the Los Angeles Community College District established vaccination rules for staff and students in line with the K-12 policy: Show proof of vaccination or submit to regular coronavirus testing.

A child in a mask does schoolwork
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

What is back-to-school looking like?

L.A. school officials and most public health experts said it’s safe to reopen schools despite the Delta surge and stress the importance of layering safety measures — most notably an indoor mask mandate and, in some places, outdoors as well. Other measures include upgraded classroom ventilation, social distancing when there is enough room and frequent hand-washing.

Still, some parents are worried. Some have explored limited online options. In Los Angeles Unified, parents had until Friday to proactively choose online classes — an independent-study option that is much different from the distance learning of the last school year. Otherwise, children in the nation’s second-largest school system will be expected to show up on campus for the first day of school Monday.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health disclosed last month that there were seven outbreaks in youth settings during the final week of July — the most since December. Most were associated with youth sports — and heavily associated with poor health safety practices, such as inconsistent mask-wearing, lack of physical distancing and failing to isolate sick individuals and their close contacts.

Recorded cases and hospitalizations are increasing among children — although without any associated deaths, said county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. Documented cases among children through age 11 increased from 47 to 319 when comparing the two-week period ending June 26 with the two weeks ending July 24, according to county data. For ages 12 to 17, the number of cases rose from 34 to 211. Hospitalizations remained rare, about 1 in 100 cases among those age 12 to 17.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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