COVID-19 vaccine mandate for California schools face uncertainty

Students walk onto the Lucerne Valley Elementary School campus on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. The school was allowed to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic after receiving an approved waiver from the state of California.
Students walk onto the Lucerne Valley Elementary School campus on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. The school was allowed to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic after receiving an approved waiver from the state of California.
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California appears to be walking back a plan Gov. Gavin Newsom first rolled out in 2021 to impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all eligible K-12 students statewide sometime after July 1, 2023, through emergency powers separate from the state’s standard legislative process.

After Newsom announced in October 2022 that he plans to end the state’s COVID-based State of Emergency on Feb. 28 this year, nearly three years after he declared it, the California Department of Public Health “is not currently exploring emergency rulemaking” to mandate COVID vaccinations for in-person schooling, the agency told the Daily Press in an email Wednesday, responding to an inquiry about a recent letter to Newsom from the Lucerne Valley Unified School District.

The letter ― penned by LVUSD Superintendent Peter Livingston on Jan. 3 and approved by the rural High Desert school district’s five-member board on Jan. 12 ― criticized Newsom for what it describes as having “provided no guidance for teachers, students, parents, and administration on your pending (COVID) vaccine order/mandate.”

The pending mandate first arose publicly on Oct. 1, 2021. That day, Newsom announced at a school in San Francisco that he “plans to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of vaccinations required to attend school in person when the vaccine receives full approval from the (U.S) Food and Drug Administration,” according to a governor’s office press release at the time.

The state’s initial expectation was for COVID vaccinations to become mandatory with full FDA approval for students in “grades 7-12 starting on July 1, 2022,” the release stated under a headline: “California Becomes First State in Nation to Announce COVID-19 Vaccine Requirements for Schools.”

But on April 14, 2022, the Newsom administration announced it was delaying all planned K-12 mandates indefinitely, citing a lack of full FDA approval for any COVID vaccines on the market to be received by a younger person than 16.

Instead of setting a new target date for the rollout of K-12 student mandates, state health officials declared only that “any vaccine requirements would not take effect until after full FDA approval and no sooner than July 1, 2023.”

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly explained in an April 2022 interview, the Associated Press reported: “Based on these two facts — we don’t have full FDA approval, and we recognize the implementation challenges that schools and school leaders would face — that we are not moving to have a vaccine requirement for schools in (the 2022-23) academic year and no sooner than July 2023.”

No public updates have come on the outlook of Newsom’s emergency student-mandate plan in the more than nine months since that delay.

California is the only state in the U.S. “with an Announced Pending Student COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate,” according to a state-by-state COVID policy tracker hosted online by the National Academy for State Health Policy.

None of the 50 U.S. states have imposed a COVID-vaccine mandate for K-12 students. The District of Columbia technically set one in January 2022, but it has delayed actual enforcement of the rule to at least the 2023-24 school year. On the other end of the spectrum, 21 states have imposed “a Ban on Student COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates,” including Michigan, New Hampshire, and many South and Midwest states, according to the policy tracker, which NASHP last updated on Dec. 27.

Still, if and when the Newsom administration plans to turn its “pending” COVID-vaccine mandate into an enforceable rule has remained an open question for California’s K-12 students and parents through the first month of 2023.

A lack of clarity is what Livingston says drove him and the LVUSD board to send Newsom a formal letter earlier this month, arguing that the murky outlook of his K-12 mandate plan “puts school districts in a bind on what and how to communicate to our communities.”

“We have kindergarten parents asking us about this, and we do not have a response since you have been silent,” the letter states. “Once again, your actions (or lack thereof) place the burden of communication, implementation, and enforcement squarely on the shoulders of principals, teachers, staff, administrators, and school boards.”

LVUSD gave Newsom three requests for “your help in supporting our students and community by:”

  • “Issuing a press release in which you make clear your rationale for this order or indicate that this will not happen now or in the future without proper input from all stakeholders.”

  • “Providing a forum where concerned parents and community members can provide feedback and obtain meaningful contact with decision-makers regarding their concerns.”

  • “Ending all pandemic-related measures associated with schools currently in place or set to go in place” ― including any planned COVID-vaccine mandates for students ― “and allow local control on all such decisions.”

Livingston told the Daily Press that LVUSD hadn’t received any responses or acknowledgments of their Jan. 12 letter as of Wednesday. This adds to his transparency-focused frustrations because, according to the superintendent, neither the governor’s office nor any other state authority has communicated with his district to explain or seek local input on the emergency-mandate plan outside public statements.

The governor’s press office didn’t respond to a Daily Press request for responses to the criticisms, questions, and recommendations in LVUSD’s recent letter. Yet, Newsom has spoken in tandem with state agencies, including CDPH and the California Health and Human Services Agency, when publicly discussing the emergency-mandate plan, as these agencies would be crucial to imposing such a plan.

CDPH responded to the same inquiry with what appears to be the state’s new outlook on requiring COVID vaccinations for K-12 students: It’s not going to happen —at least not in the form Newsom’s administration has set as a public expectation since October.

“The state’s SMARTER Plan” ― an initiative launched last February to transition to post-pandemic normalcy ― “continues to provide an adequate framework to address the current COVID-19 situation,” CDPH told the Daily Press in an email.

That’s why Newsom laid out a new plan last October to end California’s COVID-based State of Emergency on Feb. 28, the agency continued. This would apparently phase out special powers the governor would need to impose a vaccine mandate without standard legislative approval.

“As such, CDPH is not currently exploring emergency rulemaking to add COVID-19 vaccinations to the list of required school vaccinations,” the agency stated. “Any changes to required K-12 immunizations are properly addressed through the legislative process.”

When asked to clarify if this means the state’s outlook for a COVID-vaccine mandate on students has changed since April 2022 ― in that Newsom’s “pending” mandate is now off the table, leaving the standard lawmaking process as the only future path for such a mandate ― CDPH responded:

“That is correct, at this time, any changes to required K-12 immunizations will be addressed through the legislative process.”

CDPH didn’t specifically address the criticisms lodged by LVUSD in its recent letter but emphasized that it wants every K-12 student eligible for a COVID vaccination to get the full series of shots available to them, with or without a mandate. It cited “turnkey mobile vaccination services” that the state sponsors exclusively for K-12 schools as one means through which California continues to give students unique access to clinics where they can get the jabs.

“Health officials strongly recommend immunization of students and staff against COVID-19 to prevent hospitalization and other serious complications, including death,” CDPh said. “Widespread vaccination has contributed to keeping California children in school to learn and to strengthen social connections.”

The intermediary authority between LVUSD and the Newsom administration’s state-level powers is the Office of Education of San Bernardino County, helmed by the county’s Superintendent of Schools, Ted Alejandre.

In a statement to the Daily Press, an Alejandre spokesperson took a balanced approach of supporting the concerns of its local district and implying that the county hasn’t been in the loop on where the Newsom administration stands with its student-mandate plan.

“Our districts have vastly different needs based on their respective learning communities, which are locally governed,” the Alejandre spokesperson wrote Wednesday. “Our office serves as a conduit for information between our districts and state leadership, but the Governor's mandates are determined solely at his discretion.”

The county office has now sent “inquiries for further details from the Office of the Governor” specifically relating to the status of its student-mandate plan, she added.

San Bernardino County had some of California's lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates and the third-highest per-capita COVID-19 death rate in the state. The county's cumulative 8,163 COVID-19 deaths was second only behind Los Angeles County.

Local leaders in Lucerne Valley, an unincorporated community of just over 5,000 residents in the Mojave Desert of San Bernardino County, aren’t new to contention with COVID policies Newsom has heralded in California.

LVUSD oversees three public schools ― an elementary school, a middle-high school, and a continuation high school ― with a combined enrollment in the current year of 1,062 students, Livingston told the Daily Press.

That’s a 10% increase from its enrollment just one year ago, according to the superintendent. LVUSD logged only 660 students at its public schools as of seven years ago, he added, which translates to a 60% rise in enrollment from the 2015-16 school year to today.

Livingston and other local officials say enrollment has ballooned at an accelerated rate in their small, rural district since COVID brought sweeping shake-ups to the U.S. education world in 2020.

This is another source of LVUSD’s frustrations. Lucerne Valley schools were among the first to reopen in California last year after mass closures came with the virus’ emergence. The district argued in 2021 that the state disregarded the $500,000 it should have received to cover the costs of its outsized enrollment increases.

On Oct. 14, 2021 ― a couple of weeks after Newsom announced his administration’s plan for the now-canceled emergency mandate of COVID vaccines for K-12 students ― Livingston and LVUSD penned a letter denouncing the idea as a “blatant and serious infringement of its students’ fundamental rights,” citing legal, ethical and medical principles for opposing enforcement of the plan.

The letter LVUSD sent earlier this month references that the K-12 mandate Newsom planned to impose via emergency powers would allow for religious and medical exemptions and for parents to opt their kids out of the shots based on personal beliefs.

This is more lenient than a mandate that would take effect if COVID vaccines were to pass California’s standard process of adding to the list of required K-12 immunizations: Vetting and approval in lawmaker committees, approving votes by both the state Senate and state Assembly; and a final approving signature from the governor ― a process that would remove the option of personal-belief exemptions for parents.

“You previously stated that there would be an opt-out for personal and religious beliefs,” LVUSD wrote in its recent letter to Newsom.

“While we appreciate this,” the letter continues, “the tracking and monitoring who has and hasn’t received a shot or which shot to remain ‘current’ is not feasible or necessary at this point of the COVID endemic.”

Livingston insists that neither he nor the LVUSD board members are “anti-vax people” but that they strongly stand by the idea that each parent should get the final say on whether their child receives a COVID vaccination.

He said that LVUSD has made extensive efforts to make clinics available to staff, students, and local community members proactively seeking COVID vaccines and that schools in Lucerne Valley have become the most significant local source of vaccinations.

“We’ve hosted several vaccination clinics at our school sites with the county Department of Public Health,” Livingston says. He also cited a partnership with Barstow Community Hospital in 2021 that invited LVUSD staffers to get COVID shots via a drive-through clinic at the hospital in 2021.

“I just think people need to be aware of it,” he said about Newsom’s COVID-vaccine mandate plans.

“If it’s not gonna happen, then he needs to come out and say it’s not gonna happen, ‘cause we’re talking with parents of kindergartners who want to know, ‘What do I need to do for vaccines?’ I will tell you, they will not enroll their kids in California schools if they have to get a COVID vaccine.”

Charlie McGee covers California’s High Desert for the Daily Press, focusing on the city of Barstow and its surrounding communities. He is also a Report for America corps member with The GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and worldwide. McGee may be reached at 760-955-5341 or Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.

This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: COVID-19 vaccine mandate for California schools face uncertainty