All California schoolchildren must be vaccinated against coronavirus under new bill

Associated Press
Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento announces new legislation at a news conference at the Arleta High School in Los Angeles Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. Sen. Pan introduced the Keep the Schools Open and Safe Act, to close the personal belief exemption loophole for school-based vaccination requirements for COVID-19.

LOS ANGELES — California legislation proposed Monday would eliminate a personal belief exemption loophole in school-based COVID-19 vaccination requirements and add the vaccine to the state’s required inoculations for attending K-12 schools

Sen. Richard Pan introduced the Keep Schools Open and Safe Act during a news conference Monday at a Los Angeles school.

Pan, a pediatrician, said the law is needed to ensure that children are educated.

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“Families across the state and country have faced disruption, anxiety and trauma from this pandemic for now almost two years. Confidence and certainty are things we all long for,” said Pan, a Democrat who represents a Sacramento-area district.

The legislation would build on a 2015 law that eliminated the personal belief exemption for all other childhood vaccinations required for schoolchildren.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in October announced the nation’s first coronavirus vaccine mandate for schoolchildren. But it likely won’t take effect until later this year and allows exemptions for medical reasons and personal beliefs.

According to Pan, only the Legislature may remove the personal belief exemption.

GOP lawmaker vows to fight proposal 

Assemblyman James Gallagher immediately announced he will oppose Pan’s bill.

“The government doesn’t want your family to have a choice. Government is in control. Either get vaccinated or get kicked out of school,” the Yuba City Republican said in a statement.

Pan’s proposal follows legislation proposed Friday that would allow California children age 12 and up to be vaccinated without their parents’ consent.

California minors ages 12 to 17 cannot be vaccinated without permission from their parents or guardians, unless the vaccine is specifically to prevent a sexually transmitted disease.

Pan was joined in his announcement by officials of the big Los Angeles and San Diego school districts and the president of the California Medical Association.

“Vaccinations are an integral part of keeping our school communities safe and our commitment to health and safety remains a top priority,” said Megan K. Reilly, interim superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Twin student vaccine bills likely to face strong opposition

Pan’s legislation is the second major vaccine bill announced this year by a group of Democratic lawmakers who formed a work group last week to focus on measures to increase vaccination rates and reduce misinformation. On Thursday, Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced Senate Bill 866, which would permit children 12 and older to choose to be vaccinated, including against COVID-19, without a parent’s consent or knowledge.

Both bills are expected to be met with strong opposition from groups that object to vaccine mandates and those who argue that medical decisions for children should be left to parents. Legislative attempts to change vaccine laws in schools have previously led to intense deliberations, prolonged protests and arrests.

Gallagher called parental permission proposal “another example of Democrats wanting to remove parents from the equation.” 

“I think there will be bipartisan support for the proposition that parents should be involved in their kids' health care decisions, in deciding what types of medical care and drugs they should be taking,” Gallagher said,

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“We should be having conversations about what’s best for our children and what’s best for the safety of schools,” Pan said.

California currently requires students at all public and private schools to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. However, that mandate, which was announced by Newsom in October, does not take effect until after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approves the shot for children ages 12 and older. Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is fully approved for ages 16 and older, and there is an emergency authorization in place for ages 5 to 15.

Newsom’s mandate is limited to grades seven through 12 and has a key caveat: Once the vaccine is fully approved, parents could still cite personal beliefs to opt their children out of being inoculated. The state must offer broader personal belief exemptions for any newly required vaccine unless it is added through a new law to the list of shots students must receive to attend school in California. State law requires a medical exemption to skip some or all of those vaccines for in-person attendance at K-12 schools.

Pan’s bill will go much further than Newsom’s mandate, starting with requiring all students from kindergarten through 12th grade to be vaccinated against COVID-19 beginning Jan. 1. That requirement would be in place even if Pfizer-BioNTech remains available through emergency authorization for ages 5 to 15, although Pan said that language is “something we’re still working out.”

By adding COVID-19 shots to the state’s list of required vaccines for students, parents would need a medical exemption in order to skip those doses. Pan said issues surrounding COVID-19 vaccine boosters are not currently addressed in his bill.

“That’s one of the things we’ll have to work out,” he said.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.