The Vaccine Mandate: What Will It Mean for Your Child?
Many parents in California are greeting the availability of the Covid-19 vaccine for younger children — approved by the FDA at the end of October — with a huge sigh of relief. However, some parents remain skeptical, and worry that the vaccine is too new, or even that it might be dangerous, particularly if their children have certain healthcare conditions or allergies. In a recent survey, nearly 3 out of 10 parents said they were unwilling to vaccinate their child.
As the number of school districts issuing mandates increases, parents who refuse to vaccinate their children are wondering what educational options their children will have. On the other hand, parents and teachers who find themselves or their family members at high risk from Covid, or who cannot themselves be vaccinated for medical reasons, might be disappointed by the force of the mandate as it currently stands — if multiple parents sign exemptions, there won’t be as much protection for all students, teachers, and their families.
The vaccine mandate & SB 277
On October 1, 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that all California students will be required to get the Covid-19 vaccine in order to attend school following the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval. This statewide mandate is likely to come into effect for middle and high schools on July 1, 2022, and on January 1, 2023, for elementary schools. “The state already requires that students are vaccinated against viruses that cause measles, mumps, and rubella,” Newsom said. “There’s no reason why we wouldn’t do the same for Covid-19.”
Newsom’s administration plans to ask the California Department of Public Health to add the Covid vaccine to the list of vaccines required in California under California senate bill 277. Understanding SB 277 (which passed in 2015) is key to understanding what the statewide mandate might look like and when it will take effect.
The list of required vaccines currently includes MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) for kindergarten and Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) for seventh grade. However, the Covid vaccine would not be included until the FDA fully approves it for these age groups. (It is currently only approved for emergency use in children aged 5–11.) At that point, the California Department of Public Health would check with the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians before approving the addition of the Covid vaccine, which explains why considerable time has been allotted before the mandate comes into effect in January or July, 2022.
Senate bill 277 also contains language that specifically exempts children who have an IEP from these vaccine requirements:
“The bill would specify that its provisions do not prohibit a pupil who qualifies for an individualized education program, pursuant to specified laws, from accessing any special education and related services required by his or her individualized education program.” While “special education” can be interpreted as Independent Study plus services, districts have largely avoided enforcing SB 277 when it comes to students with disabilities.
The 2015 bill also removed the “personal belief exemption” that up until then had allowed parents to refuse immunization requirements for reasons other than medical exemption; however, it left open the possibility of personal belief exemption for “future immunization requirements.” In 2019, SB 276 was passed, increasing the requirements physicians must meet to issue a medical exemption. In effect, this ensured that all but a very few children must be vaccinated in order to attend public school, making it possible to prevent the spread of debilitating and sometimes fatal diseases. (SB 276 was passed six months after the measles outbreak in California.) The law applies to students in public schools, including charter schools, and private schools from transitional kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Governor Newsom has encouraged local health jurisdictions and education agencies to implement Covid vaccine requirements ahead of the statewide mandate based on their local circumstances. Several school districts have already done so, including Culver City, where the Covid vaccine is now mandated for “eligible” students aged 5–22. (While there are already lawsuits in play in Culver City, they’re not likely to be successful because lawsuits against SB 277 were not.) In LAUSD and Oakland, the mandate extends to children aged 12 and up who are attending school in person (with medical exemptions in LA, and with personal belief exemptions in Oakland). In San Diego, kids ages 16 and up attending in person must get the vaccine.
What will it mean for your family?
California parents have three options: obtain a medical exemption to vaccinations, enroll in homeschooling or Independent Study, or vaccinate their children. However, because the Covid vaccine is currently added to the list by regulation instead of legislation, SB 277 says it must allow for a personal belief or religious exemption. For now, parents will be able to file this exemption with their child’s school. In the meantime, state legislators are looking to pass an amendment to grant the Covid vaccine the same status as the MMR and Tdap, for which there is no personal belief exemption.
Another wrinkle in vaccine enforcement is the fact that a student’s vaccination status is only checked upon entry to elementary school in kindergarten and middle school in seventh grade. For the Covid vaccine mandate to provide the reassurance that many families and staff are seeking — particularly for those who may have high-risk conditions or may not be able to receive the vaccine for medical reasons themselves — vaccine status needs to be checked for all students in schools, and on a more frequent basis. (In fact, one school nurse in LA County told Undivided that they are already behind schedule in checking kids’ status with existing vaccines because of the additional work that the Covid restrictions impose on them.)
We reached out to special education attorney David German to find out more about what the mandate means for children with IEPs. “For the 2021–2022 school year, it is important for all parents to remember that distance learning options are supposed to be available at parents’ discretion,” he says. “That was explicit in the Independent Study law that passed. The law had elements that disadvantaged students with disabilities, and we are challenging those. But it also left it up to parents to decide what was safe for their kids in terms of in-person attendance during the ongoing pandemic. Hopefully parents will continue to be able to access a range of distance learning programs if they decline to have their child vaccinated.”