Student Sebastian Melendrez Duran getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
A student gets the COVID-19 vaccine, which will be required to attend school in person in California once the vaccine is fully approved by the FDA. Credit: Amir Aziz

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday that students will have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend school in person, making California the first state in the nation to impose this requirement.

The mandate will go into effect either Jan. 1 or July 1, depending on when the FDA approves the vaccine for kids. California will then add the COVID-19 vaccine to a list of required immunizations, such as against measles and mumps. The rule will take effect first for students ages 12 and older, and later for those under 12 years old, depending on when the vaccine is approved for those age groups.

“We want to end this pandemic. We are all exhausted by it. And the purpose of this is to continue to lead in that space,” Newsom said at a press conference Friday.

The announcement comes after a few California districts – Los Angeles, San Diego, Culver City, Piedmont and Oakland – announced similar mandates. Last week, Berkeley Unified’s school board discussed a vaccine-or-test rule for students that would also require vaccination for sports and events like prom. The state policy will require vaccination without a testing option.

Newsom said the state encourages districts to implement their own mandates ahead of the the state’s. “We have no trepidation, no hesitancy in encouraging local districts to move forward more expeditiously,” Newsom said.

Students who are not vaccinated will have to enter into independent study, according to Newsom’s announcement.

In Berkeley Unified, 80% of eligible students are vaccinated. At the high school, 91% of white and Asian students are fully vaccinated, compared with 54% of Black students and 43% of multi-ethnic students.

If many students do not get vaccinated, the number of students enrolled in independent study, which currently only serves just over 100 of the district’s 9,000 students, could balloon.

School board director Julie Sinai considers the vaccine mandate a “good step forward.” She wants to see more people get vaccinated and hopes that the district launches a vaccine education campaign. School board director Laura Babitt, who previously expressed concerns about a mandate without a testing option, said she is glad the pressure is off individual school districts to make public health decisions and that BUSD can follow official state guidance.

School staff will also have to be vaccinated against the virus, with few exemptions granted for religious and medical reasons. Staff previously had the option to be vaccinated or get tested weekly, but this mandate removes the testing option for staff as well. Currently, 89% of BUSD employees are fully vaccinated.

Berkeley’s teachers union “fully supports the governor’s decision to put forth sensible health policies to ensure that our communities remain safe, and do everything we can to reduce COVID in our schools,” according to Matt Meyer, president of Berkeley’s teachers union. Meyer said the union came out in support of mandatory vaccination for teachers last week, before Newsom’s announcement.

The mandate applies to both public and private schools in California.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...