In-Depth: New bills would enhance vaccination requirements and testing at California schools

teen vaccines
Posted at 6:26 PM, Feb 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-23 21:55:32-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – A group of state lawmakers has introduced a package of new bills designed to improve COVID safety at schools next year, including mandatory vaccinations without a personal belief exemption and testing for students and staff.

The bills involving childhood vaccinations could be the most galvanizing legislation that lawmakers take up this session.

In October, thousands of protesters gathered outside the state Capitol after Governor Gavin Newsom announced that COVID vaccination would be required for in-person learning at K-12 schools.

The governor timed the regulations to take effect once the FDA fully approves a COVID-19 vaccine for children. Currently, vaccines for children under 16 are only available via emergency authorization.

Because of existing law, the governor’s vaccine mandate allows families to opt-out by citing their religious, political, or other personal beliefs.

SB 871 would eliminate personal belief exemptions by placing COVID-19 on the list of required immunizations for entry at schools and day cares. There are ten other vaccines currently required for school entry, including measles and hepatitis B.

“Unfortunately, in some schools, the personal belief exemption rate will be very, very high, which means that other students who are in the school are not being protected,” said state Senator Richard Pan, the lead author.

Dr. Pan led the effort to eliminate the personal belief exemption for other vaccines in 2015. A study in the journal Pediatrics found that the legislation boosted California kindergarteners’ vaccination rate from 92.8% in the 2015-16 school year to 95% in 2017-18.

Pan also sponsored a bill in 2019 to crack down on bogus medical exemptions, setting off a flurry of protests at the capitol that culminated with a demonstrator throwing a cup of blood onto the senate floor. Police cited another activist for misdemeanor assault for shoving Dr. Pan.

“Unfortunately, the opposition still doesn’t have sound arguments on their side so they’re continuing to resort to vitriol and hate and even threats of violence,” Pan said.

If signed, the bill would take effect on January 1, 2023. Pan said lawmakers would reassess the legislation if COVID vaccines were not fully approved for children by that time.

After that, families who refuse vaccination and cannot secure a medical exemption would have to enroll their children in independent study.

“When we’re looking at something like COVID, if I choose not to get vaccinated, I choose my kids not to get vaccinated, and they’re going to school around your children, then they have the ability to infect your children, the teachers, [and] shut the school down,” said Assembly co-author Dr. Akilah Weber of San Diego. “The fact that I believe something should not impact your health or the health of your family.”

Another new bill, SB 1479, would require all public schools, pre-schools, and childcare to establish COVID-19 testing plans for students and staff and track the data.

The measure is contingent on funding, ensuring that schools are reimbursed for testing costs, said Weber. Legislative analysts have not yet estimated how much funding will be required to implement the program.

Dr. Weber said the new bill will address economic disparities that hampered testing capabilities in some schools.

“We don’t want to have to go back to a situation where some of us are in distance learning because we don’t have the resources to test,” she said.

The legislation does not specify how often schools must test, which Weber said was intentional. “If our numbers stay low, it may not be a routine thing,” she said. “But if we, unfortunately, see an uptick, then we need to be flexible enough and have the policies and procedures and funding in place to allow for routine screening if needed.”

If the bill passes, schools would have to offer the tests, but families could choose whether or not to get them. It would take effect in 2023.

Both bills could come up for a vote this spring.