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Gov. Newsom orders school employees to get vaccinated or be tested regularly

California school employees must either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to regular testing proving they are not infected with the coronavirus under an order from Gavin Newsom.

California school employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to a weekly test proving they are not infected with the coronavirus under an order announced Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom that positions the state as among the most aggressive in the nation with mandates aimed at keeping campuses safe.

The move represents a measured step in strict school safety guidelines in response to the rapid spread of the Delta variant. Some 1,000 public school districts as well as private schools will be affected by the order, which is set to take effect Thursday and gives schools until Oct. 15 to comply fully.

“We think this is the right thing to do,” Newsom said. “And we think this is a sustainable way to keeping our schools open and to address the No. 1 anxiety that parents like myself have for young children — and that is knowing that the schools are doing everything in their power to keep our kids safe.”

The governor’s order lays out both progress and challenges in the fight against the pandemic, which shut down most schools statewide for more than a year, starting in mid-March 2020.

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The order notes that 63% of Californians 12 years of age and older are fully vaccinated with an additional 10% partially vaccinated. But when looking at school-aged children, the figure drops to less than 41% for those 12 to 17 years old. Children younger than 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination. In other words, the majority of people on campuses — the students — will not be vaccinated for the start of school, an exposure that’s coinciding with the Delta variant surge.

California is currently experiencing the fastest increase in coronavirus infections “during the entire pandemic,” the order states, with 22.7 new cases per 100,000 people per day, and “with case rates increasing tenfold since early June.”

As case numbers linked to the Delta variant have grown, there’s been a substantial increase in infected children in California and across the U.S, according to data compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Severe illness among children appears to be rare.

There’s no hint that officials will repeat the previous response of shutting down campuses serving more than 6 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade. “California is committed to safe, full, in-person learning for all in K-12 schools, following strong public health science,” the order states.

Newsom already had announced a similar policy for employees of state agencies and an absolute mandate, with limited religious and medical exceptions, for state healthcare workers.

The governor represented the new order as a first-in-the-nation step, although Hawaii got there first with rules covering public-school employees. All told, Newsom’s recent actions underscore a sharp contrast with some governors in other states.

In California, for example, Newsom mandated masks indoors on all campuses — a strategy subsequently endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In contrast, the governors in Arkansas, Florida and Texas forbad mask mandates. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson later said he regretted the move but had trouble walking it back. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has doubled down, threatening to withhold the salaries of officials who insist that local students wear masks.

Even so, within the California context, Newsom’s move was a politically moderate play. Several school systems — including those in San Francisco, Oakland, Long Beach and Glendale — already were adopting such policies.

“Given that we are in the midst of rising cases and new variants in our community,” San Francisco schools Supt. Vincent Matthews said in a statement, “a vaccine requirement is a necessary step to keeping our students, staff and families safe.”

Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school system, goes further than the state order in terms of testing. While the state requires only the unvaccinated to undergo weekly testing, L.A. Unified requires weekly testing of all students and employees, whether or not they are vaccinated.

Officials took this step because of evidence that vaccinated people can catch and transmit the highly contagious Delta variant. The L.A. Unified testing plan will require collecting and processing about 100,000 tests per day.

The L.A. district also goes beyond state guidelines in requiring students to be masked outdoors while at school. At Tuesday’s school board meeting, officials touted such measures as reasons for anxious parents to feel reassured about returning for the Aug. 16 opening of school.

Leaders of the two statewide teachers unions reacted favorably, as did the National Education Assn. The California Teachers Assn. has said 90% or more of its members have reported they are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Newsom’s action raised the question about what other steps lie ahead. During his news conference at an Alameda County elementary school, he deflected queries about whether an absolute vaccine mandate for teachers — with no option of testing — could be next. He said all options would be considered and reconsidered as appropriate.

Key union leaders are open to the idea, including Jeff Freitas, president of CFT, which represents school employees at the college and K-12 level. At the college level, Freitas said, the union is working on making sure that vaccine mandates are carried out fairly, but without opposing the mandate itself.

The president of the L.A. teachers union, Cecily Myart-Cruz, said through a spokesperson Wednesday that she does “not oppose” a vaccination mandate for teachers and other employees represented by United Teachers Los Angeles. Her position is in line with recent actions by the union’s board of directors but represents a shift from two weeks ago, when Myart-Cruz said she preferred outreach efforts over vaccination mandates — both for employees and students.

Some school officials have been moving toward mandates. The private Harvard-Westlake School in Beverly Crest has adopted one; so has the nonprofit Para Los Niños, which operates three charter schools, seven early education centers, two youth centers and mental health sites.

The Las Virgenes Unified School District, which straddles the border of L.A. and Ventura counties, plans to mandate that employees receive COVID-19 vaccines once they achieve full federal authorization, which could be in a couple of months.

Many parents also are warming to a vaccine mandate for teachers.

“Mandatory vaccination for every eligible teacher, staff and student is absolutely necessary to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities — children under 12 and those who are immunocompromised,” said Jenna Schwartz, a leader of the group Parents Supporting Teachers, which is generally supportive of the teachers union.

Vaccine mandates for teachers also sound like a good idea to Christie Pesicka, a parent leader in California Students United, which has been critical of the teachers union and pushed for a more rapid reopening of campuses, including by filing a lawsuit.

The governor’s order did not include a promise of additional funding for testing but instead alluded to billions of dollars in state aid already provided. Schools and districts will have to put in place a plan for tracking vaccination status. These verifications must be made available to local health departments for case investigations.

The order includes those who volunteer on campus, which takes in many parents. No exceptions will be made for people who’ve already had COVID-19 and may therefore have some level of immunity. Eligible tests to use include the fast-response but less accurate antigen tests and the more expensive and reliable PCR or molecular tests.

Both the University of California and the Cal State systems have announced strict vaccine mandates for all students and staff, who will be turned away from in-person classes and indoor campus facilities if they are not inoculated. The mandate does not apply to those with medical or religious exemptions. Last week, the Los Angeles Community College District established vaccine rules for staff and students in line with the K-12 policy: Show proof of vaccination or submit to regular coronavirus testing.

Vaccine mandates for school employees received an endorsement earlier this week from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the senior U.S. infectious disease expert.

“Yeah, I’m going to upset some people on this, but I think we should,” he said in an interview with MSNBC. “This is very serious business. You would wish that people would see why it’s so important to get vaccinated.”

But Fauci added that there wouldn’t be a federal mandate. State and local officials would have to make the call, he said.

Times staff writers Colleen Shalby and John Myers contributed to this report.


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