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New Bill Could End Any Doubt That California K-12 Students Must Get COVID Vaccines

In the courtyard of a high school, a row of people stand in a line with the sun at their backs, with the sunlight casting long shadows onto the pavement. Two younger women at left hold basketballs at their stomachs. Others in the line are wearing business attire, and two people wear white doctor's coats.
State Sen. Richard Pan (middle) stands with officials from the L.A. Unified and San Diego Unified school districts, as well as students at Arleta High School (left), during a press conference to announce a proposal to tighten California's K-12 student vaccine mandate.
(Kyle Stokes
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A state lawmaker wants to end the legal and logistical confusion over COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students in California’s K-12 schools.

New Bill Could End Any Doubt That California K-12 Students Must Get COVID Vaccines

State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) said Monday he will introduce legislation this session to add the coronavirus to the list of shots students must take in order to attend public or private schools.

An executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom will eventually require the vaccine for students statewide, and a patchwork of California districts have already developed their own mandates: Los Angeles Unified will require eligible students to get their COVID-19 shots starting next fall.

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However, the governor’s order won’t take effect until after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration grants full approval for the vaccine, leading to uncertainty over when the mandate would take effect. Even then, because Newsom imposed the requirement via executive order, California law would still allow parents to opt their child out by requesting a “personal belief exemption.” Pan’s proposal is meant to close this loophole.

The FDA has granted full approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for people ages 16 and older, and emergency use authorization for children ages 5-15.

‘Legislatures Need To Act’

Pan also hopes his proposal will answer the unease expressed in state and federal judges’ rulings against vaccine mandates handed down without legislative approval — including a recent lower court defeat for the San Diego Unified School District’s student vaccine requirement. (The district has appealed.)

“While I may not agree with some of the … rulings around vaccine requirements,” Pan said, “the judges have certainly made it clear: legislators have the authority to pass laws to make our communities safe, including increasing vaccination rates to keep schools open and safe. Therefore, legislatures need to act.”

Pan, a pediatrician who also chairs the state Senate’s Health Committee, authored SB 277, the original 2015 law that ended the personal belief exemption for the list of required shots K-12 students must receive to attend school, for vaccinations against:

  • polio
  • measles, mumps and rubella
  • chickenpox
  • diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis
  • hepatitis B
  • haemophilus influenzae B (through age 5)

His forthcoming bill hasn’t yet been drafted into legislative language, but is certain to draw criticism from many of the same vaccine skeptics and “medical freedom” groups who protested SB 277. It would not only add COVID-19 to the array of required vaccines, but also end the “personal belief exemptions” for any future condition that state public health officials deem necessary to add to the list.

Big Districts Back Proposal

Pan announced his proposal in a press conference at Arleta High School, flanked by leaders of both LAUSD and San Diego Unified. He pointed to those districts as proof student vaccinations can help K-12 campuses remain open for in-person learning.

As of late December, more than 86% of LAUSD students aged 12 and older were already in compliance with the district’s vaccine policy. At Monday’s press conference, San Diego Unified board member Richard Barrera said around three-quarters of older students in that district were vaccinated.

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“We need these kinds of common-sense efforts coming from the state legislature,” said Barrera, “to keep our students safe, keep our staff safe, and keep our students in schools.”

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).