Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement last week that COVID-19 vaccines will be required for students ages 12 and up has been met with broad support, and a lot of questions, from local education leaders.
School officials on the Peninsula are generally on board with the idea of a vaccine mandate, but some say there are still a lot of details that need to be worked out.
For Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Don Austin, the news of a vaccine mandate was "relatively predictable," but the lack of written documentation on how the new rules will function has left a lot of issues unanswered.
"Immediately school leaders have a thousand questions, which are in addition to the questions we received right away from parents and staff," Austin said. "The frustration begins with having to wait for clarification around exactly what it means and potential timelines."
The governor announced at an Oct. 1 press conference that students will be required to get fully vaccinated to participate in face-to-face instruction. The mandate will only take effect at the start of the academic term next year, either Jan. 1 or July 1, after the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the shots for those 12 and older. Based on current FDA timelines, the state expects students in grades seven through 12 will be required to get vaccinated by July 1, 2022.
In response to questions from this news organization, the California Department of Public Health's (CDPH) communications office said in a statement that once the FDA fully approves a vaccine for students within a given span of grade levels, the state health department will consider recommendations from other groups, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and American Academy of Pediatrics, before implementing a requirement.
CDPH will then begin a rule-making process to flesh out the details, gathering public comments and possibly including exemptions to the mandate, according to the statement.
"We will make an announcement when we have more information to share," a communications office spokesperson said.
Los Altos School District Superintendent Jeff Baier said that he thinks the mandate is a "positive step" to protect student and staff health, adding that it's similar to vaccines the state already mandates.
"This is yet another disease over which we can exercise a measure of control and really ensure that our students are able to remain in in-person schooling with much less worry about a significant outbreak," Baier said. "Everyone participating is critical in this."
In an Oct. 1 email to families and staff, Menlo Park City School District Superintendent Erik Burmeister said that vaccines are key to ending the pandemic, and that all eligible people should be vaccinated.
"We are also proud that 97% of our staff is already fully vaccinated and those who received Pfizer are now getting their boosters," he said.
Parents and students react to mandate
Mountain View High School parent Jennifer Matus said the vaccination requirement makes her feel safer about her children attending school, especially with the emergence of breakthrough COVID-19 cases among the vaccinated.
"I personally love it. I think it makes a lot of sense," she said. "Kids always have vaccine requirements, for the safety of students and adults."
Matus serves as Mountain View High's PTSA president, but said she was speaking as an individual parent. Although she favors the mandate, Matus said she knows other families who aren't getting their kids vaccinated, including some of her son's friends.
Los Altos High School senior Serena Gaylord is similarly supportive of the mandate, saying that while she is vaccinated, she knows that some other students aren't.
"I think it's really important, especially because kids don't have a lot of autonomy to decide whether they can be vaccinated or not," Gaylord said. "It's their parents' decision."
Some teachers have also shared their support of the vaccine requirement. John Davenport, who teaches history at Corte Madera School and is president of the Portola Valley Teachers Association, said his mentality toward COVID-19 vaccines is "the more the merrier."
"We can hopefully move back to something a little less restrictive than what we have now," he said of current classroom safety protocols.
The vaccine mandate will also apply to school staff. Public school employees will be required to get vaccinated when the mandate takes effect for students. Currently, teachers and staff who aren't vaccinated must undergo regular testing.
Palo Alto Superintendent Austin said a lot is still "up in the air" about the staff mandate, like whether there will be any exemptions and what would happen to unvaccinated employees.
Menlo Park Superintendent Burmeister is optimistic the "medical, legal, and logistical questions will resolve themselves" over the next several months and "districts will be able to move forward with clarity," he said in a Wednesday email.
Implementation questions linger
Newsom's announcement does leave questions in the minds of many school officials. Chief among them is what happens if a student doesn't get vaccinated. It's possible those students would be enrolled in the independent study programs districts are required to offer this year, Los Altos district's Baier said, but that isn't certain.
"There's some skeletal details here, but we have not yet seen ... the regulations from the California Department of Public Health," Baier said. "Once we see those, we'll have a better idea."
Superintendents wondered whether families will be able to opt out of the mandate. Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District Superintendent Nellie Meyer said that from the governor's statements, it appeared he was exploring the possibility of offering exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine.
"It still remains to be seen what the details will be for those who are exempt," Meyer said. "I anxiously await that guidance."
Exemptions based on personal beliefs aren't allowed for other immunizations that are currently required by the state of California, although vaccination isn't necessary to enroll in independent study programs that don't include classroom-based instruction.
According to Meyer, enrolling unvaccinated students in the district's independent study program seems like the most likely option at this point.
Austin said it would be "disappointing" if the vaccine mandate meant more students don't receive an in-person education, when the goal is to ensure students are able to stay on campus.
Another remaining question, Baier said, is how many vaccines need to receive full approval before the mandate takes effect. Currently only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is fully approved for ages 16 and up, with Moderna's and Johnson & Johnson's still under emergency use authorizations. Pfizer is the only vaccine currently available to those under 18, and is being administered under an emergency use authorization for ages 12-16.
Austin said he "absolutely" supports mandating COVID-19 vaccination for those 12 and older once the FDA gives its full approval, adding that although he normally favors local control, he feels it would have been "irresponsible" for the state to leave the decision about a vaccine mandate to local districts.
"I do support the state taking this on for an entire state, rather than leaving it to the 1,050 individual school districts," Austin said. "I think that path was going to be a disaster."
Local schools push for the mandate
Some local school districts had publicly pushed the state to issue a vaccination mandate ahead of Newsom's announcement. Sequoia Union High School District Superintendent Darnise Williams and school board members recently sent a letter to Newsom, asking the state to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of legally required vaccines.
They wanted California to show leadership and use its "extensive medical expertise and resources" to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for students, Williams said in an email. School district officials felt forced to make medical decisions while being "squarely in the middle of political divides," instead of focusing on educating students, she said.
San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Magee, who co-signed the Sequoia district letter, said in an email that the recently announced mandate "makes a statement that state leaders are committed to providing the safest, healthiest environments possible for teaching and learning."
"The more people within a given school community who are fully vaccinated, the more the risk of transmission is reduced for everyone, children and adults," she said. "When students at every grade level are fully vaccinated, the levels of protection increase. This will allow schools to begin operating with fewer restrictions and in turn, will increase the quality and stability of the teaching/learning environment as well as reduce the burden on school leaders and staff."
In the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, Meyer said the district's board hasn't taken a formal position on the mandate, but added the district supports students being vaccinated.
"The more students and staff we can have vaccinated, the safer our community will be," Meyer said.
Magee noted that individual school district governing boards may decide to enact vaccination mandates sooner than July if they deem it necessary.
Menlo Park Superintendent Burmeister concurred that school boards will have some flexibility to mandate vaccinations sooner than the state. But most boards would likely not do so until vaccines receive full FDA approval.
The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is expected to receive emergency FDA approval this month for 5- to 11-year-olds. To prepare for a "robust and efficient" vaccination process for that age group, the San Mateo County Office of Education is working with the county health department and local districts to plan for school-based vaccination events starting in early November.
Menlo Park district officials have already planned a vaccine clinic with Safeway Pharmacy for 5- to 11-year-olds on Saturday, Nov. 6, at Hillview Middle School.
Gathering vaccination information
Some school districts have already begun asking students to voluntarily disclose their vaccination status. Roughly 50% of students in the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District have submitted proof of vaccination, Associate Superintendent Leyla Benson said.
The "vast majority" of that information came from students who had been identified as a close contact of a positive case, Benson said. Vaccinated students who are close contacts can generally continue to participate in extracurricular activities while getting tested for COVID-19, while their unvaccinated peers have to sit out.
Both Benson and Meyer said they believe the true number of students who have been vaccinated is well above 50%, but said many students may not see a need to submit their vaccination information.
"If there is some kind of requirement imposed, or a local requirement, I do think that the number will go up very quickly," Benson said.