California lawmaker plans to eliminate ‘personal beliefs’ vaccine exemption for schools

State Senator Richard Pan, pediatrician, speaks at the Capitol in Sacramento. Photo courtesy of the State Senate

Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett McFadden expects the vast majority of his students and staff to comply with the COVID-19 vaccination mandate issued by Governor Gavin Newsom on October 1 .

But he also expects a dozen of his employees to resign through personal or political opposition.

“It’s a very small number, but the people who are upset about it are making their voices heard,” said McFadden, whose Nevada County district is about 65 miles northwest of Sacramento. “The vast, silent majority of educators are saying, okay, we’re going to get the vaccine.”

As a small minority of teachers and parents across states protest immunization mandates, a lawmaker is considering ways to bolster the new immunization requirement by closing a controversial public health loophole that lawmakers in the State had previously waived for the other 10 vaccines required for California students.

“The purpose of these laws is not to force anyone to immunize their children, it is to protect schools,” said State Senator Richard Pan of Sacramento, Democrat and pediatrician who chairs the Senate committee on health. “You don’t want schools closed and people sent home and quarantined. “

The vaccination mandate announced on October 1 will go into effect once the United States Food and Drug Administration fully approves the vaccine for different age groups. The Newsom administration expects the first vaccination deadline for students in Grades 7 to 12 to be July 1, 2022.

The warrant, however, allows for exemptions from personal beliefs. This means that students and staff could opt out of the COVID-19 vaccine for religious or ideological reasons.

The personal belief exemption process for vaccinations varies across the country for students and employees, according to Dorit Reiss, professor of law at UC Hastings.

“Some people just ask to check a box on a form,” she said. “Others have a different process, like sending a letter.

Pan has a long history of tightening vaccination rules for students. In 2012, he drafted a law that required parents seeking a personal belief exemption to consult a medical expert about the benefits and risks of vaccinations.

In 2015, he co-wrote a law that completely eliminated the personal belief exemption for childhood vaccinations.

Pan then successfully tightened regulations on medical exemptions in 2019 with a bill requiring the California Department of Public Health to audit all medical exemptions in schools with vaccination rates below 95%, and doctors who submit more than five medical exemptions each calendar year. Anti-vaccine protesters zealously opposed the bill.

The new COVID-19 vaccine mandate reignited the issue of personal belief exemption because the 2015 law requires all vaccination requirements issued by the state health department without a vote of the legislature to include the disposition.

“Back then, we were more concerned with routine vaccinations. We thought, why have a fight that doesn’t really matter? Pan said. “The laws we drafted for school mandates were not written with pandemics in mind. That is why this provision is there.

Pan says he will consider drafting legislation that would eliminate the exemption if COVID-19 cases increase statewide or if districts report high numbers of students and staff abusing this provision to avoid the vaccine.

A possible bill, Pan said, would add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of vaccinations already required for students in public and private schools. Then it would be treated like the other 10 vaccine requirements that do not allow a personal belief exemption under SB 277.

“The problem with the personal belief exemption is that if there are too many people using it, we will have schools that are not safe,” he said. “We need to make sure that the children can stay in school and learn and not have to be sent home for two weeks.”

The California section of the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement in support of the mandate.

“The eradication of smallpox and polio, as well as the prevention of meningitis, measles and pertussis show that vaccines work,” said chapter president Yasuko Fukuda. “New vaccines are developed and evaluated through a long-standing rigorous process to ensure efficacy and safety.”

Catherine Martin, executive director of the California Immunization Coalition, a public health advocacy group, said she understands the concerns of hesitant parents about the COVID-19 vaccine, but agrees that the personal belief exemption should be eliminated.

“The number one reason for eliminating the personal belief exemption is to be consistent,” Martin said. “This vaccine is no more risky than any other vaccine.”

COVID-19 vaccines are currently not FDA approved for children, but are expected to do so when the mandate goes into effect.

Martin said his organization will spend the next few months supporting pediatricians and school administrators as they explain the benefits and risks of the COVID-19 vaccine to students and their families.

“Parents suffer because they are really afraid,” she said. “Doctors are really going to have to improve their game in terms of time and answers to their questions. “

However, Martin has less sympathy for teachers and school staff who refuse to be vaccinated for political reasons.

“If they don’t believe in science or if it’s a political conviction, maybe they need to find other work,” she said. “Maybe this will eliminate people who don’t believe in science.”

California Teachers Association president E. Toby Boyd released a statement last week supporting the student immunization mandate and said the vast majority of teachers have already been fully immunized.

“While recognizing the need for medical and religious exemptions, we believe vaccinations are essential for the safety of students and educators, keeping our schools open for in-person instruction and to fight this pandemic,” Boyd said .

CTA spokeswoman Lisa Gardiner declined to say whether the union would support the elimination of the personal belief exemption if lawmakers were to come up with a bill.

McFadden expects most of his employees, even those who oppose the mandate, to end up getting vaccinated so they can keep their jobs. He said when the governor issued a previous warrant requiring teachers to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing, many teachers complained, but most returned.

“They said, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ but then they realized they had to pay the rent,” he said. “I have maybe 5 or 10 that are not vaccinated and they will leave. “

CalMatters is a public service journalism company committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.

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