California is requiring all teachers and school staff to either get vaccinated for COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing—the first state in the nation to issue such a sweeping requirement.
“We think this is the right thing to do, and we think this is a sustainable way to keeping our schools open and to address the No. 1 anxiety that parents like myself have, ... and that is knowing that the schools are doing everything in their power to keep our kids safe, to keep our schools healthy,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, during a press conference on Wednesday.
The order applies to all school workers in both public and private schools, and educators must be in compliance by Oct. 15. When asked if the state would remove the testing alternative to vaccinations, Newsom said he will consider next steps after observing how successful this order is at boosting vaccination rates.
Newsom’s announcement comes as more high-profile officials, including the nation’s chief epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, as well as the National Education Association, voice support for requiring teachers to get the vaccine. U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on Wednesday that he supports vaccine mandates for teachers, but that it’s not his decision to make.
Last week, Hawaii Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, mandated that all state and county workers—including public school teachers—get vaccinated by Aug. 16 or get tested weekly. A growing number of local government officials, including in New York City and Washington, D.C., have imposed similar requirements for teachers.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has gone one step further by ordering all school staff in the city to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30—if they don’t, there will be “consequences,” and “there may be some folks who lose their jobs,” he said.
The recent surge of COVID-19 cases has threatened to compromise schools’ ability to safely offer in-person instruction this year. Elementary and some middle school students are not yet eligible for the vaccine, and uptake among students 12 and older has been slow.
Federal and state officials prioritized teachers for the vaccine last winter in hopes that it would help schools stay open five days a week. The vaccinations not only protect those who receive them, but can also help lower the likelihood of transmission for those around them, epidemiologists have said.
Both national teachers’ unions estimate that about 90 percent of their members are vaccinated against COVID-19. A nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey, conducted in late July and early August, found that 11 percent of teachers say they do not intend to get the shot.
California has among the highest vaccination rates in the country—about 75 percent of eligible Californians have received at least their first dose—but Newsom said that’s not good enough.
“There’s no substitute for vaccinations except those nonpharmaceutical interventions we’ve all come to know well, and that’s continued testing, contact tracing, ... and continuing to do what we can to encourage people to wear face coverings particularly in settings indoors,” he said.
California has required all students and staff to wear masks indoors—one of 11 states to do so, according to the tracking firm Burbio.
Teachers’ unions have supported vaccine requirements
The national teachers’ unions were slow to embrace vaccine mandates, but their stance has evolved as the more-contagious Delta variant spreads throughout communities, causing case numbers and hospitalizations to increase in areas across the country.
The NEA, with 3 million members, came out Thursday in support of mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for educators or regular testing for the virus. Its president, Becky Pringle, stressed the need for employee accommodation and input, including collective bargaining “where applicable.” The 1.7 million-member AFT’s executive council passed a resolution Wednesday reiterating support for voluntary vaccination, and encouraging union representatives to bargain over vaccinate-or-test policies.
In California, the two state teachers’ unions—the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers—applauded Newsom’s order.
“This new policy, along with COVID-19 best practices learned over the past year, such as ventilation, masking, and frequent hand-washing, will allow us to safely get back to our classrooms—a top priority for our members and a top priority for students and their families,” said CFT President Jeff Freitas in a statement.
When asked by a reporter if the state will require students to get vaccinated once the vaccines receive full FDA approval, Newsom, who is facing a recall election on Sept. 14, said that option will be considered “if necessary.”
Teachers have been bracing for the start of yet another pandemic school year. Mask-wearing, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for all students and educators in schools, has become politicized and is hotly controversial. Many teachers say they fear another disruptive school year with COVID-19 outbreaks.
Requiring vaccination or regular testing is “good for students, good for teachers,” said Larry Ferlazzo, an English and social studies high school teacher in Sacramento and an EdWeek contributor. “We all need to be safe. It’s going to be crazy enough in schools with probable quarantines periodically this year, and this will at least slightly reduce those chances.”