A nurse gives a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shot to a 14-year-old at Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
K-12 Education

California school COVID vaccine mandate: What to know

The mandate would take effect for grades 7 through 12 the semester after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the vaccine for children 12 and older, which would be January at the earliest.

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a mandate Friday requiring all eligible public and private school students in California to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Here are the basics of how it will work:

What is the vaccine mandate?

The mandate would take effect for grades 7 through 12 the semester after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the vaccine for children 12 and older. Students in kindergarten through sixth grade would be phased in after the vaccine is formally approved for younger children.

The mandate could take effect for students 12 and older as early as January if there is full federal approval for a COVID-19 vaccine for that age range no later than December.

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What about students who don’t get vaccinated?

Once it’s in effect, students will not be allowed to attend classes in person without being vaccinated, just as with any other required childhood vaccine. Medical and religious exemptions would be available.

Under the governor’s order, unvaccinated students will have the option of enrolling in a fully online school, attending independent-study programs offered by school districts or being homeschooled.

It will be up to schools and school districts to enforce the mandate, as they do with other required vaccines, including those for hepatitis B, tetanus, mumps, measles, polio and chickenpox. The governor said he is simply applying the same standard for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Where do we stand with child vaccinations?

The vaccinations have been available to everyone 12 and older since May. Among all age groups, there have been 226 million administrations of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the U.S. since December, a mass rollout of vaccinations that has no parallel in U.S. history.

In that period nationwide, 54% of adolescents age 12 to 15 have received at least one dose of vaccine, as have 62% of 16- and 17-year-olds. If there were a safety problem with the vaccine for adolescents, it likely would have surfaced by now, many experts say.

Students 16 and older are currently eligible for the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which has won full approval by the FDA. Children ages 12 to 15 have been able to receive Pfizer shots since May after the FDA authorized the doses for emergency use in that age group, with full approval widely anticipated by November.

Vaccines for children 5 to 11 are not that far off. Pfizer is expected to apply for authorization imminently, citing evidence from trials indicating that the shots are safe and effective for children in that range. The shots could be available for that group, under an emergency-use authorization, around Thanksgiving, according to the Associated Press.

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What has been the experience of districts that already imposed mandates?

Statewide, at least six school districts — including the two largest, Los Angeles and San Diego — have approved student vaccination mandates. Already, L.A. and San Diego have received cease-and-desist letters, a precursor to a lawsuit.

Some parents in L.A. have asserted various reasons for opposing the mandate. A number of them are factually wrong, according to experts, such as claims that the vaccine is killing more people than the virus or that the vaccine poses a greater risk to children than COVID-19. Other parents say the vaccines are too new for them to be comfortable having their children receive the shots.

Although a majority of Los Angeles parents appear to have accepted the school district’s vaccine mandate for those 12 and older, thousands have not, based on recent vaccination rates.

As of Sept. 9, L.A. Unified interim Supt. Megan K. Reilly estimated that, of about 225,000 students in grades 6 through 12, roughly 80,000 were not yet vaccinated. The district has not recently updated those figures.

Eligible L.A. students who have not received their first dose by Oct. 3 will be barred — starting next week — from participation in extracurricular activities, including clubs, sports, band and drama. L.A. Unified students must be fully immunized by Jan. 10 or they will be unable to begin the second semester taking classes in person.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.