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California quietly abandons COVID-19 vaccine mandate for school kids

The Mercury News| by John Woolfolk | February 6, 2023

With the pandemic emergency quickly winding down, California officials appear to have quietly backed away from plans to require COVID-19 vaccinations for K-12 school students, a move that avoids the prospect of barring tens of thousands of unvaccinated children from the classroom.

The shift comes 14 months after Gov. Gavin Newsom visited a San Francisco middle school to declare plans to make California the first state to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for its more than 6 million students.

The vaccine mandate, initially expected to kick in last summer, was put off another 12 months amid flagging youth vaccination rates that opened a debate over how the requirement would disproportionately punish disadvantaged students already struggling to recover academically and emotionally from pandemic school lockdowns.

Now, with no announcement or explanation, the administration appears to be quietly dropping the COVID-19 immunization mandate altogether. The education news site EdSource reported Feb. 1 that the state would no longer pursue it, citing unnamed officials. When the Bay Area News Group asked whether the state was dropping plans for the mandate, the California Department of Public Health would not directly answer but did not dispute the EdSource report, noting that “emergency regulations are not being pursued.”

“The legislature considered this issue last year and did not enact legislation mandating COVID-19 vaccines for K-12 students,” the CDPH said in a statement. “The state’s COVID-19 state of emergency will terminate later this month, and per the recent announcement by the federal government, the federal public health emergency will end in May.”

Newsom’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

But school officials like Superintendent Eric Volta of Contra Costa County’s Liberty Union High School District weren’t surprised and didn’t expect the mandate would ever materialize for logistical and practical reasons.

“I would have been shocked had they kept pressing forward with it,” Volta said.

Most childhood immunizations, Volta noted, involve a shot or two and that’s it. But with the COVID-19 vaccines, whose protection has proven to be temporary, health officials have been urging boosters at least annually, if not more often.

“I don’t know how we’d be able to track a vaccine that’s given yearly, that’s what it comes down to,” Volta said. “It’s one thing to have vaccinations by 8th grade, but a yearly vaccination? Oh, that would be a challenge to follow up on. And not to mention families being told they can’t come to school because you don’t have this vaccination?”

Newsom in October 2021 said his plan was for the mandate to begin with grades 7-12 in July 2022, assuming the Food and Drug Administration by then had granted full approval of the vaccines for ages of students enrolled in those grades. Mandates for K-6 students would follow once the vaccine was fully approved for those ages as well.

The FDA granted full approval for Pfizer’s original formula COVID-19 shots for ages 16 and older in August 2021 and for ages 12 and older in July 2022. But primary vaccines for those under 12 and booster shots are still given under expedited emergency use authorization.

In April 2022, the CDPH announced that the mandate would not be enforced for the 2022-23 school year. It was the Newsom administration’s last announcement on the subject. That same day, state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, announced he was pulling his bill that would have not only mandated COVID-19 vaccination to attend K-12 schools but eliminated personal belief exemptions, as he’d done in 2015 for other required immunizations.

SAN JOSE, CA - NOVEMBER 4: Alejandra Luna, 10, receives a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine dose from Registered Nurse Shari Hamrick, as her mother Maria Resendiz and sister Paola Luna, 9, look on at a clinic on the campus of Katherine R. Smith Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. The County of Santa Clara and the Santa Clara County Office of Education is launching school-based vaccination clinics for children ages 5-11. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
SAN JOSE, CA – NOVEMBER 4: Alejandra Luna, 10, receives a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine dose from Registered Nurse Shari Hamrick, as her mother Maria Resendiz and sister Paola Luna, 9, look on at a clinic on the campus of Katherine R. Smith Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. The County of Santa Clara and the Santa Clara County Office of Education is launching school-based vaccination clinics for children ages 5-11. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) 

At the time, thousands of middle and high school students were still unvaccinated and in jeopardy of being disenrolled. And vaccination rates among school-aged children haven’t improved much since. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 25% of California kids ages 12-17 and 60% of those 5-11 have not been fully vaccinated against the virus.

Pan has since left office, and there are no other COVID-19 immunization mandate bills for school kids in the legislative hopper.

Either way, the bills proved problematic. In cases where parents successfully sued to block district-level COVID-19 vaccine mandates, courts have ruled that the Legislature vested the CDPH, not local school boards, with that authority.

In light of recent court decisions, several large districts that had moved to impose their own mandates, including those in Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland and West Contra Costa counties, have said they are following the state’s lead.

Some school officials are frustrated with the administration’s silence on a mandate that would require significant time to prepare for. “If it’s over, just say it,” Lucerne Valley Unified Superintendent Peter Livingston in San Bernardino County told EdSource.

Much has changed since October 2021. Though children continue to be least at risk from the virus, current omicron variants have largely been mild for adults as well. Most Americans, vaccinated or not, have been infected with some version of the virus. Mask and social distancing requirements have been dropped.

And the state has ended its requirement that unvaccinated school teachers be regularly tested to come to campus, effectively eliminating the teacher vaccine mandate.

Health officials meanwhile are unsure how many additional vaccine boosters will be needed and what formula. Variants of the virus that were prevalent last year — and that the latest updated vaccine booster was based on — are giving way to newer strains. All of which complicates implementing any mandate.

“If this was going to be something they were trying to push,” Volta said, “it would be interesting how they’d handle it.”

Source: California quietly abandons COVID-19 vaccine mandate for school kids (mercurynews.com)

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