CALIFORNIA, USA — A state lawmaker said he wants to ensure that all school students in San Diego and throughout the state are vaccinated against COVID-19, and due to that, he announced a proposal Monday to eliminate personal belief exemptions and expand upon a state vaccine mandate.
"We have an opportunity here to keep kids safe," Sen. Richard Pan, D- Sacramento, said Monday during a California Medical Association news conference, where the legislator and pediatrician announced details of the Keep Schools Open and Safe Act.
"As a pediatrician, parent and legislator, I am committed to giving the public confidence and certainty that we are working to prevent or slow down the next coronavirus surge," Pan said. "Legislators have the ability to pass laws to make our communities safe, including increasing vaccination rates to keep schools open and safe."
Under state law, personal belief exemptions must be allowed for any newly required childhood vaccine unless the legislature passes a law banning them.
Pan said closing the personal belief exemption loophole for the "safe and effective" shots ensures that "every medically eligible student attending school in person is vaccinated."
Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced a statewide school vaccination mandate, but it will not take effect statewide until a vaccine receives full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Pan's bill would require the shots even if they are only being offered under an emergency use authorization by the FDA.
Anyone aged 5 and older is currently eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.
San Diego Unified Board member Richard Barrera attended Monday's news conference. He called a vaccine requirement a "common sense" way to protect students and educators and keep kids in schools.
"We welcome this necessary legislation by our state leaders to help end the roller coaster of the pandemic and allow schools to go back to focusing on what we do best -- educating our students," Barrera said.
SDUSD has unsuccessfully tried to implement its own such vaccine mandates for students and staff for the spring semester, but those policies are being held up in the courts.
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"The state legislature does have the authority to require a vaccine mandate," Barrera said. "What Senator Pan is doing is stepping up and doing what all people following the science understand."
Los Angeles Unified School District Interim Superintendent Megan K. Reilly on Monday called vaccine requirements an integral part of keeping students safe, especially those from low-income communities who are disproportionately impacted by the deadly virus.
"All employees at our schools are 100% vaccinated, and nearly 90% of our students 12 and older are in compliance with our vaccine requirement," Reilly said. "We have lowered case rates with our students and employees and in our schools because of the many layers of protections and safety measures -- but, most of all, because of vaccines."
She voiced her support for a statewide vaccine mandate.
"With a county as large as Los Angeles, where there are nearly 1.5 million students in transitional kindergarten through 12th grade across 80 different school districts, this consistency in health standard will help ensure all of us in the school community are doing our part to keep community transmissions low and ensure a safe school environment for our most vulnerable student populations," she said.
The Keep Schools Open and Safe Act builds on SB 277, also sponsored by Pan, which eliminated the personal belief exemption loophole for all other childhood vaccinations required for public and private school students when it became law in 2015.
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"The most effective way to keep schools open and safe is to ensure the COVID vaccination rate of students and school staff is as high as possible in addition to masks, testing and good ventilation to minimize infections," Pan said. "My legislation will give parents great certainty that their child is unlikely to get seriously sick and their school will stay open during COVID."
"We welcome this necessary legislation by our state leaders to help end the roller coaster of the pandemic and allow schools to go back to focusing on what we do best -- educating our students."
Meanwhile, California Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-3) spoke out about the bill Monday, tweeting:
“Democrats proposing these school vaccine mandates don't want kids to have a choice. They want to remove parents from the equation and give your child the choice of get the shot or get kicked out of school.”