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By Collin Breaux
Under a California bill recently proposed by State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), the COVID-19 vaccine would be added to the list of immunizations students are required to have for school.
Though an eventual vaccine requirement for California students attending classes in-person—pending full approval of the vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration—has already been brought forth by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Pan’s legislation is stricter as it removes an exemption for personal beliefs that was allowed by the governor.
The proposed bill introduced on Jan. 24 does allow for medical exemptions, though those would be rare.
In a press release announcing the legislation last week, Pan, a pediatrician, said the measure is meant to give California parents, such as himself, confidence that schools and in-person learning environments are safe for their children.
“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 in the announcement.
Senate Bill 871—the Keep Schools Open and Safe Act—has not gone unnoticed within the Capistrano Unified School District, where COVID-19 vaccine requirements have been hotly contested. The district is monitoring what’s going on with the bill, Trustee Gila Jones said.
While vaccination rates could go up if the bill is approved and becomes law, Jones cautioned that in-person enrollment could also go down. In turn, that would negatively impact low-income and disabled students—who may not have access to homeschool options, she said.
“The bottom line is, it’s inequitable,” Jones said. “We need to provide equitable access.”
Numerous parents have frequently spoken against vaccine requirements for children, citing individual freedom and concerns about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness—among other reasons.
Medical experts have generally said COVID-19 vaccines are safe, have no detrimental long-term side effects, and lessen the severity and chances of contracting the virus.
SB 871’s language points out that existing law prohibits the governing authority of a school or other institution from “unconditionally” admitting any person as a pupil beforehand unless they’ve already been immunized against various diseases including measles, mumps, or hepatitis B.
Jones—who emphasized she is not a medical expert or scientist—said vaccination rates could increase in CUSD if there were an outreach effort encouraging vaccinations through calling parents or going door-to-door, similar to what’s happening in the neighboring San Diego Unified School District.
The potential impacts to students from a vaccine requirement—particularly, if they are pulled from in-person instruction after a mandate is implemented—have been discussed at CUSD Board of Trustee meetings before.
Some district officials, such as Jones, have said students benefit mentally and emotionally from in-person instruction and suffer learning deficits when they are not physically in the classroom.
The CUSD Board of Trustees previously approved a resolution authored by Jones requesting state officials rethink student vaccine requirements, based on parental concerns. Whether one is pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine, disregarding the concerns of others is insensitive, Jones said.
“We have to be pragmatic,” Jones said. “We can’t take a ‘let them eat cake’ attitude.”
SB 871 cannot be acted on before Feb. 24, and so has not yet been assigned to any committee. Such actions would be the beginning steps of the legislation possibly moving forward. It would then have to be approved by both the State Senate and Assembly before going to the governor for enactment.
Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.