- In December, several large California school districts including Los Angeles Unified pushed back vaccine mandate deadlines to avoid having to switch thousands of unvaccinated students to remote learning, reported EdSource. California became the first state to mandate student COVID-19 vaccination when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the move in October, pending full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval younger students.
- Newsom has encouraged local districts to issue their own mandates “more expeditiously” if they see fit. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine currently has full FDA approval for people 16 and older, but it is still only authorized under emergency use for ages 5 to 15.
- While Newsom said he expected other states to follow suit on vaccine mandates for students, so far only Louisiana and Washington, D.C. have done so. Even so, more states are moving in the opposite direction: As of Jan. 3, 17 states ban requiring student COVID-19 vaccination, according to the National Academy of State Health Policy.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced in December vaccines will be required for students 16 and older starting in the fall. The D.C. City Council voted in December to require eligible students in the district to receive a fully approved COVID-19 vaccine for the 2022-23 school year, according to WTOP.
Even without state mandates in place, some individual school districts have started enforcing their own vaccine requirements.
But it’s still difficult for districts to enforce mandates without the state backing them up, said Dorit Reiss, professor of law at University of California, Hastings in San Francisco. California’s statewide mandate cannot go into effect until the FDA fully approves the vaccine for younger students.
And with some district mandates, lawsuits follow. So far, legal challenges by parent activist groups against the Los Angeles Unified School District’s strict vaccine mandate have failed, Reiss said.
“We’re learning that the mandates have at least a decent chance of being upheld in court,” Reiss said. “If you look at childhood vaccine mandates, the most recent new mandates came in when vaccination mandates were already high.”
Reiss said COVID-19 vaccine mandates have been more successful for school employees than for students. In that case, it might make more sense for schools to first focus on workplace mandates over student ones, she said.
While LAUSD’s vaccine mandate for students is currently legally sustainable, Reiss said it poses logistical challenges on top of facing widespread resistance due to misinformation.
A logistical issue came up for LAUSD when the district pushed back a Jan. 10 deadline requiring students 12 and older to receive two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. Instead, the requirement will take effect at the start of the 2022-23 school year, because the district is currently too understaffed to serve unvaccinated students in its independent study program, according to EdSource.
The pandemic has politicized mandates to the point where some parents have rejected any kind of related COVID-19 measure, said Dr. Dean Blumberg, a pediatrict infectious disease specialist affiliated with University of California, Davis Health in Sacramento.
“Whether it’s immunization, whether it’s masking, whether it’s quarantining, they’re just against all those public health measures,” he said. “That’s a long-term issue I think we’re going to have to deal with in the U.S. for a long time.”
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases among children reached the highest case count reported since the beginning of the pandemic with the week ending Dec. 30, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. As of Jan. 5, 25% of 5-11 year olds nationwide have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, AAP reports, while 63% of those ages 12 to 17 have gotten at least one shot.
Even though omicron has increased COVID-19 cases and put further strain on schools as of late, Blumberg said the spread is expected to peak and calm down by the end of January or early February.
So while omicron increases the urgency to discuss the need for school vaccine mandates, Blumberg said he doesn’t believe the situation has developed enough to require K-12 vaccine requirements.
When more data is available within the next several years, then it might be more feasible to start large-scale COVID-19 vaccine mandates, he said. But at this time, Blumberg said there is not enough information to move forward with more statewide mandates.