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Newsom announces nation’s first vaccine mandate for students

The mandate will be rolled out in two phases, rely on full FDA approval of vaccines and grant certain exceptions.

(CN) — California will be the first state to mandate Covid-19 vaccines for students under an order announced Friday by Governor Gavin Newsom.

The regulation, which is dependent on the vaccine's full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, will make the Covid-19 vaccine the 11th on California's list of required immunizations for schoolchildren. Newsom said the state will be adopting a two-phase approach.

The first phase will require all age-eligible students in grades seven and above to be vaccinated by the beginning next school term. That deadline could be either Jan. 1 or July 1, depending on which comes first after the FDA grants full approval.

Concurrent with the first phase is a requirement for all K-12 staff to get vaccinated. The deadline for staff could be moved up depending on when the Biden administration formally releases further guidance on its vaccine mandates for workers.

The second phase, which Newsom said was “months away,” would institute mandates for students in kindergarten to sixth grade. Currently no Covid vaccine has been approved for children under 12.

Newsom highlighted California’s vaccination efforts and said the state had the lowest Covid-19 case rates in the country. He said the prerogative to keep students and staff safe led the state to “follow the science” in issuing the vaccine mandates and predicted other states would follow California's lead.

“I anticipate other states will follow suit,” Newsom said during the press conference at a San Francisco school. “There are well-established exemptions for medical reasons, personal and/or religious beliefs.”

According to the state's vaccination data, more than 63% of Californians between the ages of 12 and 17 are partially vaccinated as of Friday and just over 55% are fully vaccinated. Pfizer is currently seeking emergency authorization of its Covid-19 immunization for use in children aged 5 to 11.

Newsom argued that school closures were happening more frequently in school districts and states with looser Covid-19 protocols. The proportion of Covid-19 cases among children has increased, particularly in places with lower vaccination rates. Experts have indicated that vaccinating children will be crucial to ending the pandemic since children under the age of 18 comprise nearly a quarter of the country's population.

“We’re all exhausted by the pandemic,” Newsom said. “While there continues to be encouraging signs, there’s still a struggle to get to where we need to go, and that means we need to do more and we need to do better.”

State Senator Richard Pan praised Newsom's move in a statement.

"As a pediatrician and parent, I applaud the governor for requiring the Covid-19 vaccine for students and teachers when the vaccines receive FDA approval for students aged 12 to 15," Pan said. "Students who cannot be vaccinated because of age or medical condition and students who are at risk for severe illness from Covid-19 are protected when the people around them are vaccinated."

Some conservative politicians and commenters lambasted the vaccine mandate announcement.

"This is government overreach on an unprecedented level," tweeted Amy Phan West, a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Also speaking at the press conference were Vincent Matthews, superintendent of San Francisco Unified School District, along with state Senator Scott Wiener.

“What we need to do is make sure that we are getting vaccinated and we are wearing masks. This community has responded overwhelmingly. 96% of our staff are vaccinated, 90% of our [eligible] students throughout San Francisco are vaccinated and we have 100% mask wearing,” Matthews said. “We have to take care of each other.”

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