Blog

Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.

States

California Is Mandating COVID Vaccines for Kids. Will Other States Follow?

By Evie Blad — October 04, 2021 5 min read
Marcus Morgan, 14, waits to receive his Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Families Together of Orange County in Tustin, Calif., on May 13, 2021.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

When California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced a first-in-the-nation statewide mandate for students to be vaccinated against COVID-19, it set off conversations about whether other states will soon follow.

One key detail in California’s new rule, issued Friday: Families can more easily opt their children out of its COVID-19 vaccine requirement than existing state rules that require vaccines for routine illnesses, like measles, as a condition of school attendance.

Another catch: The COVID-19 vaccine mandate won’t kick in right away. Rather, age groups will be phased in as vaccines win full approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which means the requirement would not be in place for older students until around July 2022, after the current school year is over.

Here’s what school leaders should know about what’s happening in California—and what it says about the debates ahead.

In student vaccine requirements, details matter

Newsom pitched his new mandate as adding COVID-19 to the list of routine vaccinations students must get under state law, but it will function a bit differently, potentially leading to higher opt-out rates.

As Education Week reported recently, California has one of the strongest pre-pandemic school vaccine laws in the country. After years of amendments by state lawmakers, in part triggered by a 2015 measles outbreak linked to Disneyland, the state does not provide religious or “philosophical” waivers from requirements for vaccines including measles, mumps, and rubella.

Aside from vaccines explicitly listed in state law, California code allows state and school officials to require other vaccines for other diseases, following recommendations from federal agencies. But those requirements must allow “personal belief exemptions.”

So, unless the state’s legislature votes to include COVID-19 in the state vaccine law, families will be able to bypass the rule for broad ideological reasons.

That may be a concern in some communities, where vaccine skepticism is higher. In the affluent Bay Area community of Marin County, for example, as many as 7.6 percent of families claimed personal belief exemptions from routine shots— more than twice the state average—before lawmakers eliminated the option in 2015.

Nationwide, rates of COVID-19 vaccination for teenagers have lagged behind other age groups, and some parents have expressed hesitation. In an August poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 23 percent of parents of children ages 12-15, who are currently eligible for the vaccine, said they would “wait and see” before getting them vaccinated. Twenty percent said they would “definitely not” get their children vaccinated for COVID-19.

Those parents may be more likely to take advantage of loopholes in state vaccine requirements.

As we reported recently, many states prohibit schools from setting such vaccine requirements for COVID-19 specifically.

And routine school vaccination laws vary: Fifteen states allow parents to opt their children out of the mandates for philosophical reasons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That process is sometimes as easy as signing a piece of paper without listing any specific ideological objection. Forty-four states allow exemptions for religious reasons, which can be broadly applied.

In the states with more restrictive current laws, like California, the strength of new COVID-19 mandates may depend on the latitude state leaders have to add new diseases to the list of covered illnesses.

Full FDA approval may trigger more student vaccine mandates

Initially, the three COVID-19 vaccines in use in the United States were administered under an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

When the agency granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for patients ages 16 and older in August, it set off a domino effect of vaccine mandates for workers around the country.

Some public health officials have suggested full approval of vaccines for younger children may set off a similar reaction. And some governors have suggested they won’t even consider adding COVID-19 to school vaccine requirements until that full approval is in place for all age groups.

See Also

Opponents of legislation that tightened  rules on exemptions for vaccinations demonstrate outside the office of California Gov. Gavin Newsom in Sacramento, Calif., in Sept. 2019. Medical exemptions in California more than tripled in the three years after they became the only allowable reason for a student to be unvaccinated.
Opponents of legislation that tightened rules on exemptions for vaccinations demonstrate outside the office of California Gov. Gavin Newsom in Sacramento, Calif., in Sept. 2019.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
States How Vaccine Loopholes Could Weaken COVID Shot Mandates for Kids
Evie Blad, September 28, 2021
9 min read

Students as young as 12 can voluntarily receive the vaccine under the emergency use authorization. And the FDA is expected to grant a similar authorization for children as young as 5 in the next month or two.

California’s mandate is conditional on full approval for two age cohorts. Both private and public students in 7th through 12th grades will be required to get the vaccine the semester after it wins full approval for their age group. Students in kindergarten through 6th grade will follow when federal authorizers grant full approval for their age group later.

Practically speaking, that means the new rule won’t likely take full effect until the 2022-23 school year.

How quickly students are vaccinated in other states may depend on if leaders wait for full approval and how soon after any future mandates take effect.

Many states won’t follow California’s lead

As debates over school mask mandates have demonstrated, state leaders have very different viewpoints on the risk posed by COVID-19 and whether to prioritize collective health requirements or personal freedom in setting policy.

It’s likely that student vaccination mandates will also vary from state to state.

Some states have already banned student COVID-19 vaccine mandates, or required full FDA approval before they can be implemented. Others may leave it up to individual school systems to set student vaccination policies, following the lead of districts like Los Angeles that already require the COVID-19 vaccine for older students, or others that have made it a condition of playing school sports.

In a sign that California may have more of an appetite for broad statewide orders, Newsom recently survived a recall attempt that was pitched in part as a referendum onhis virus response.

Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the University of California, San Francisco’s department of medicine, quickly noted the connection after Newsom’s announcement Friday.

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

States How a Website to Complain About Teachers Is Fueling the Critical Race Theory Fight
It was pitched as an effort to strengthen anti-discrimination laws, but critics say it aims to reject any discussion of systemic racism.
2 min read
Frank Edelblut speaks at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H. on Jan. 31, 2017, during a public hearing on his nomination to lead the state's education department. As first-term Gov. Chris Sununu builds out his cabinet of commissioners, he's tapped some appointees with little to no professional experience in the departments they're tasked with leading. For education, he tapped Edelblut, a businessman who homeschooled his children.
Frank Edelblut speaks at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H. on Jan. 31, 2017, during a public hearing on his nomination to lead the state's education department. As first-term Gov. Chris Sununu builds out his cabinet of commissioners, he's tapped some appointees with little to no professional experience in the departments they're tasked with leading. For education, he tapped Edelblut, a businessman who homeschooled his children.
Elise Amendola/AP Photo
States Opinion 5 Takeaways for Education From Virginia's Governor Race
In an election where K-12 schooling was widely seen as the central issue, Glenn Youngkin’s victory has important implications for schools.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
States Anxiety Over Schools Fired Up Voters This Year. What About 2022?
Election results from Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere suggest educators and schools will be firmly in the spotlight next year.
10 min read
Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin holds a broom as he greets supporters at an election night party in Chantilly, Va., early Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, after he defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, holds a broom as he greets supporters at an election night party in Chantilly, Va., after he defeated Democratic challenger Terry McAuliffe.
Andrew Harnik/AP
States How One Governor's Race Has Channeled National and Local Anger Over Schools
Virginia's gubernatorial candidates are fighting over everything from parents' roles to banning books. Is this a preview of 2022 elections?
8 min read
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, left, gestures a he talks with supporters during a rally in Culpeper, Va., Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Youngkin faces former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the November election.
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, left, talks with supporters during a rally in Culpeper, Va. Youngkin faces former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the November election.
Steve Helber/AP