California to mandate student Covid vaccines once FDA gives formal approval

Socially distant students work on an art project during class at Sinaloa Middle School in Novato, California. | Haven Daley, File / AP Photo

SAN FRANCISCO – Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Friday that California will prescribe student vaccines against Covid-19 once federal officials have fully approved the vaccinations, making it the first state to declare this requirement, although it will likely not be in effect until the next school year will kick.

Under the plan, California will add Covid-19 vaccines to its list of required vaccinations for school attendance in the first academic semester after the Food and Drug Administration approves vaccinations for students of a certain age group, split between grades 7-12 and K -6. The governor’s office estimates middle and high school students will need to get vaccinated before the start of the 2022-23 school year.

Newsom’s contract strengthens California’s already solid roster of mandates aimed at preventing the spread of the contagious Delta variant, including a mask requirement for students this year. The governor had already ordered government employees, health workers and educators to either get vaccinated or test negative. Newsom campaigned for California’s tougher rules on its way to defeating a September recall vote originally fueled by frustration over bans and school closings.

The Democratic governor has urged as many people as possible to get vaccinated, calling this the only way to ensure schools and businesses can stay open while the virus continues to circulate and mutate.

“If that is the intent to keep us healthy and safe, to get our economies going, and to bring our children back with all the benefits of in-person tuition, then all I am saying is, ‘Let’s get this done and get others to follow suit,'” “said Newsom on Friday at James Denman Middle School in San Francisco.

The high school vaccine announcement comes as a growing number of California school districts have already passed Covid-19 student vaccine mandates as a condition for in-person tuition. Los Angeles Unified became the first major school district in the country last month to require students 12 and older to be vaccinated, a move that followed the much smaller Culver City Unified in the same district.

So far, the FDA has only officially approved the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for people aged 16 and over. Other vaccines are available with emergency clearances, as is Pfizer BioNTech vaccination for children aged 12-15.

K-12 students returned full-time to California classrooms in August after surviving some of the longest closures in the US since the onset of the coronavirus in March 2020. The Delta variant has had some quarantine challenges since the start of the school year, but California has avoided wide-ranging closings so far this school year.

California has one of the lowest Covid-19 rates in the country, and Newsom has repeatedly compared the blue state to Republican-run states like Florida and Texas, which were harder hit during the delta variant surge.

According to Newsom’s requirements, students could request exemptions from the Covid-19 vaccine because of medical and personal beliefs as it is not required by law. As soon as the student mandate for a certain age group comes into force, all school employees who work with these students must also be vaccinated and no longer have the opportunity to test.

In addition to Los Angeles Unified, other school districts in California have taken similar measures, including Oakland, Piedmont, Hayward, and most recently, San Diego Unified, the state’s second largest school district. However, the San Diego mandate is limited to students 16 years of age and older and goes into effect December 20.

The San Diego decision underscores the fact that federal regulators have only officially approved the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for people 16 and older. Children ages 12-15 can be vaccinated under an emergency permit, but governments and school authorities have been reluctant to require vaccinations until officially approved.

While federal agencies have not yet approved vaccinations for children under the age of 12, Pfizer and BioNTech this week submitted data from studies of adolescents ages 5 to 11 to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

California school districts often set implementation dates by early next year to give federal agencies time to fully approve vaccinations for these age groups and to get students vaccinated. Los Angeles, for example, requires students participating in extracurricular activities to be fully vaccinated by the end of this month, but the deadline for students in general is December 19th. Evidence of vaccination must be uploaded to the district’s system by January 10th.

Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.

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