California becomes first state to mandate COVID vaccinations for students

Mason Fang, Copy Editor

On Friday, Oct. 1, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the country’s first statewide vaccine mandate for all schoolchildren, which will take action once the U.S. government approves vaccines for all age groups.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) extended emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine to those between 12 to 15 years of age on May 10. However, full FDA approval was only given for individuals 16 years of age or older on Aug. 23. 

“Once the FDA approves the vaccination in different cohorts starting with 12 and above, grades seven to 12, we will begin to apply [the mandate] in the next term, either Jan. 1 or July 1, whichever comes sooner,” Newsom said in a speech at a school in San Francisco.

The second phase of the directive, for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, will occur after the FDA fully approves the vaccine for children 5 to 11.

The COVID-19 vaccine will join 10 other vaccinations required for in-person learning in California, including vaccinations for polio and hepatitis B. Exemptions will be given for medical, personal, or religious reasons.

California has the lowest seven-day case rate among the 50 states, with 73.8 cases per 100,000 residents compared to the national average of 220.7 cases per 100,000 residents. Newsom attributes the low case rate to California’s vaccination effort — the state has administered more than 50 million doses of the vaccine, with 84% of eligible Californians having received at least one dose.

“We want to end this pandemic,” Newsom said. “I believe we will be the first state in America to move forward with this mandate and this requirement, but I do not believe by any stretch of the imagination we’ll be the last state.”

The mandate extends to teachers as well, replacing an Aug. 11 public health order from the California Department of Public Health requiring workers in public and private schools to either provide proof of vaccination or to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. The staff mandate will be applied along with the first phase of the mandate for seventh through 12th graders.

A few California school districts, including Los Angeles, San Diego, and Oakland, already approved their own vaccine mandates prior to Newsom’s announcement. Districts will continue to be able to move according to their own accelerated timelines, with the statewide mandate serving as a baseline requirement.

“We’re all exhausted by this pandemic,” Newsom said. “We’re exhausted by the seasonality of it, we’re all exhausted by these variants, these mutations, and we’re all left wondering … what lies in front of us.”