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Confusion over COVID vaccine mandate withdrawal from California schools

When Governor Gavin Newsom said last week that California would require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19, a critical warning was withheld in the nation’s announcement: Parents can withdraw their children from the vaccination based on their personal beliefs.

Newsom has not set the criteria for obtaining these exemptions, leaving the task to state public health officials. Now lawmakers are expressing concern that allowing broad exemptions in the mandate will undermine the state’s efforts to protect schools if too many families decide not to get the vaccine.

Under California law, students are allowed to skip vaccines required for in-person attendance at K-12 schools after a doctor says it is medically necessary to do so. Since the law only applies to previously approved vaccinations, the state must offer broader personal belief exemptions for all newly mandated vaccines, unless lawmakers and Newsom overrule this requirement.

Any discussion of vaccine mandates is likely to spark a feverish debate all too familiar in Sacramento. Changes to school vaccine laws resulted in intense deliberation, protracted protests, and arrests when California ended religious or philosophical-based exemptions in 2015 for other vaccines required for school, and in 2019 when lawmakers created more stringent requirements for medical exemptions.

“Personal belief exemptions are a huge loophole, and that’s why they were removed six years ago,” said State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). “And that’s why they should be removed for COVID-19. “

Newsom announced on Friday that the state would require students in all public and private schools to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, a mandate that would come into effect for students in grades 7 to 12 after the Food and Drug Administration of United States will have fully approved the vaccine for children aged 12 and older. Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is fully approved for ages 16 and over, and emergency clearance is in place for ages 12 to 15.

After FDA approval, state public health officials would begin a rule-making process that included public comment on California’s draft mandate, which would take effect in the following school term. – either January 1 or July 1 – to allow time to schedule vaccinations.

The governor’s office said teachers and school staff will be held to the same standards and timelines as students under the new vaccine requirement. Currently, teachers and staff can provide proof of vaccination or undergo weekly COVID-19 tests.

Requirements for kindergarten through sixth graders would be phased in at a later date after the FDA approves the vaccine for this age group.

“Adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccines is a critical step,” said MP Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), who in September tried to push through a last-minute bill through the government. legislature that would have required Californians to show proof of vaccination to enter many covered businesses and put in place requirements for public and private sector workers to be fully vaccinated or regularly tested.

Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday approved an order requiring people to prove they are vaccinated against COVID-19 when entering indoor restaurants, malls, movie theaters, hair and nail salons and other places. Wicks said lawmakers will need to continue reviewing the vaccine rules when they return to Capitol Hill in January, especially those regarding the vaccinations required for school.

“My personal preference is to have the strictest mandate we can get through the legislature and implement,” Wicks said.

The state is required to offer waivers for new mandatory student vaccinations after the language was included in a 2015 law drafted by Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) that eliminated personal creed exemptions for students. 10 vaccines currently required to attend school.

When Senate Bill 277 was signed by the government of the day. Jerry Brown, the previous requirements for a personal creed exemption have been removed from state law. More recently, an exemption based on religious or personal beliefs required parents to meet with a doctor about the risks and benefits of vaccines before obtaining a waiver, but the state could make the criteria for the COVID-19 vaccine more or less strict than that.

“It’s very open and it’s up to the administration to define how this will be implemented,” said Pan, whose 2012 law added this requirement. “There is a lot of problematic ambiguity right now. Our laws weren’t written for pandemics, they were written for routine childhood immunizations. “

Pan is among lawmakers considering legislation to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of school vaccines that are only eligible for medical waivers or to craft a narrower exemption for personal beliefs, such as limiting them to religious objections. While the state’s public health department is on the verge of passing regulations for the COVID-19 vaccine mandate and exemptions, anything passed by lawmakers and signed by Newsom would supersede those rulings.

“I think it’s likely that we need to fix this problem,” Pan said of the Legislature. “We don’t want schools to close or classes to be quarantined. If you have a loophole or a loophole that allows too many students to go unvaccinated, then you won’t have a safe school where students can learn. We’ve had enough disruption already.

Newsom’s office declined to know whether the governor would support legislation to remove personal belief exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The governor said the state’s process offered an “accommodating” personal belief exemption and would allow hesitant parents enough time to speak to their school doctors and nurses. He said his own daughter, who recently turned 12 and is eligible for the vaccine, has yet to receive it because she has “a series of other vaccines” to receive first.

“I think the way we’ve phrased it will not only provide advance notice, but also an opportunity to meet with their primary care physicians or school nurses…

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Newsom has championed some of the country’s toughest restrictions on coronaviruses, adding vaccination mandates for all healthcare workers and demanding that those working for the state provide a proof of vaccination or undergo regular testing. But his orders were inconsistent: Newsom did not demand that corrections workers be vaccinated against COVID-19, despite recommendations from a federal court-appointed receiver overseeing medical care in prisons who argued that a warrant was needed to prevent epidemics and major deaths.

“There is no distinction between why we should have a term in one case and not in the other,” said MP Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin), who challenged Newsom in the recall election. unsuccessful last month. “But we know the reason – these decisions are purely politically motivated.”

Megan Bacigalupi, executive director of parent group Open Schools CA, said Newsom missed an opportunity to reach out to hesitant parents with its vaccine mandate.

“I talk to parents every day. There are parents who will never vaccinate, but for others they look at it and ask, “What’s the benefit?” Said Bacigalupi. “There are a lot of parents who will say, ‘COVID is not a material risk for my child, but I will vaccinate for the good of society.’ But, if their children are vaccinated, they don’t want asymptomatic tests, quarantine and masks at school. I think the governor and public health officials missed an opportunity to clarify what vaccinations mean to end some of these mitigation measures. “

Catherine Flores Martin of the California Immunization Coalition said varying immunization rules by school district is problematic and students, teachers and campus staff should have the same obligation to be immunized.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, all employees must be fully immunized by Oct. 15, with religious or medical exemptions. However, the district’s mandate to have students fully immunized by the start of the second semester in January includes only a medical exemption, not based on religious views.

Flores Martin said tracking student immunization records could be an overwhelming workload for school nurses if there are different exemptions for 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 made sense for the legislature to speak out.

“I think it should go to lawmakers,” she said.

Times editor Taryn Luna contributed to this report.

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