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Regional Interests

Newsom Mandates COVID Vaccines or Regular Tests for All California Teachers

After months of reluctance, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a mandate on Wednesday that all California teachers and staff working on school campuses be vaccinated for COVID-19 or be tested weekly.

It’s the first such statewide mandate in the nation.

“We think this is the right thing to do, and we think this is a sustainable way to keep schools open,” Newsom said at a Wednesday press conference at Carl B. Munck Elementary School in Oakland.

Newsom said the mandate would apply to staff as well as teachers, including “custodial staff, the bus drivers, folks that are critical to supporting the entire school ecosystem.”

Until now, Newsom had stopped short of such a requirement: He spent the past several months voicing confidence in school safety protocols that were based on increased ventilation and masking, while urging all school employees to be vaccinated.

Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

At the Wednesday press conference, Newsom was flanked by Oakland school officials and representatives, including Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who said there was “no substitute” for in-person learning, which vaccines make possible.

“Our children, especially children from low-income communities – they cannot afford to take steps backward on their education,” she said. “As one of the greatest artists of all time, Marvin Gaye, reminded us: save the children.”

Before the announcement, districts across the state formed a patchwork of various vaccination rules for school employees. San Jose Unified, San Francisco Unified, San Diego Unified and others were already requiring teachers to either be vaccinated or undergo regular testing. Other districts throughout California were requiring neither.

Both the University of California and California State University systems have issued vaccine mandates for students. The UC will also require faculty to be vaccinated.

Megan Bacigalupi, the executive director of Open Schools California, said this requirement should have come sooner. Her children’s district, Oakland Unified, started its school year on Monday.

“I wish this vaccine requirement would have happened earlier in the summer when it could’ve had a bigger impact,” she said. “I’m certainly happy to see him do it, but I don’t know why it took this long.”

Before the mandate, California teacher vaccines and testing vaccine requirements were negotiated between teachers unions and local school districts. One legal expert told CalMatters that because the vaccines were not yet fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a unilateral mandate from either the state or local districts could be vulnerable to legal challenges.

At Sacramento City Unified, district administrators and the teachers union met on Tuesday afternoon to discuss a vaccine or testing requirement for teachers. According to David Fisher, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, no formal agreement was reached, but he said the union and the district appeared to be on the same page.

Fisher said that with the delta variant, vaccinations alone aren’t enough. He said SCTA is calling for weekly testing for even vaccinated teachers who could pass the more contagious delta variant to unvaccinated students or staff.

“I think there should be an increased emphasis on testing,” he said. “While the science becomes more clear, we think universal testing should be a goal.”

In the past two weeks, the state also issued vaccination or regular testing mandates for state employees and health care workers. On Sunday, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second largest teachers union, added to this momentum by calling for vaccine requirements for educators.

“I’m going to upset some people on this, but I think we should [require teacher vaccinations],” Fauci said Tuesday morning in an interview on MSNBC. “We’ve had 615,000-plus deaths, and we are in a major surge now as we’re going into the fall, into the school season. This is very serious business.”

Bacigalupi said she’s hoping Newsom will issue a stronger vaccination mandate once the vaccines are officially approved by the FDA.

“I’m assuming that districts and the governor are potentially waiting for the vaccine to be fully authorized,” she said. “Once it’s fully authorized, I don’t understand why it wouldn’t be fully mandated.”

Copyright 2021 KQED