Retain the Personal Beliefs Exemption
On October 1, 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom announced plans that would make California the first state in the nation to require all age-appropriate children to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition for enrollment in a public or private school. Through a mandate issued by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), students will be required to be vaccinated for in- person learning beginning in the term following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the vaccine for their grade span (7-12 and K-6).
California law establishes January 1 and July 1 as the dates upon which school terms begin. Thus, if the FDA should bestow full approval upon one or more COVID-19 vaccines sometime in January, 2022, the mandate will only take effect on July 1, 2022. If full approval was to be granted on July 2, 2022, the mandate would take effect as of January 1, 2023.
Notably, a CDPH “Fact Sheet” released in tandem with the Governor’s announcement alerts readers that, “Requirements established by regulation, not legislation, must be subject to exemptions ‘for both medical reasons and personal beliefs.’ (HSC section 120338).” Unless California lawmakers enact legislation adding COVID-19 to the enumerated list of diseases for which school vaccinations are required, parents will be at liberty to opt out of vaccinating their child(ren) against COVID-19 by declaring that the vaccination would violate a personal belief.
Initially, it was widely assumed that legislators would waste no time introducing a bill that would add COVID-19 to the list of diseases spelled out in California Health and Safety Code Section 120335. If such legislation were passed and signed by the Governor, it would remove the personal beliefs exemption effective January 1, 2023 (unless an “emergency clause” was added to the legislation, and the bill was to win passage by a 2/3 margin in each house, in which case its provisions would take effect upon signature).
Who would be most likely to author such legislation? Most pundits looked to State Senator Richard Pan (D. – Sacramento). A pediatrician, it was Dr. Pan who, in 2015, carried the controversial SB 277 – the bill that removed both the personal beliefs and religious beliefs exemptions from the list of school-related vaccinations required by Health and Safety Code Section 120335.
But the expectation of rapid legislative action may have been blunted by the stunning recent election results in Virginia and New Jersey. In those states, coalitions of parents were catalyzed into action by an array of school-related issues that included management of COVID-19. In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin overcame a ten-point-plus poll deficit win the gubernatorial contest, while a Republican gubernatorial contender came within a hair’s breadth of overcoming an even greater deficit in solidly Democratic New Jersey.
Voter behavior in those contests has not been lost upon Democratic Party leaders in deep-blue California. 2022 is an election year in which the Governor, half of the 40 State Senate seats, and all 80 seats in the State Assembly will be up for grabs. Why would California Democrats wish to risk galvanizing intense and widespread parental opposition by putting a COVID-19 school vaccination mandate before the Legislature?
The California Association of Private School Organizations has desisted from taking a formal position on the retention of the personal beliefs exemption. Some private school administrators favor the elimination of the exemption as means of shifting the onus of decision making over what they view as a “lose-lose” choice, from their shoulders to the State Legislature. Most private school leaders, however, favor leaving the personal beliefs exemption in place.
My own view is that the removal of the personal beliefs exemption would prove counterproductive, and would damage both public and private schools by inducing vaccine skeptics and mandate opponents to withdraw their children in favor of homeschooling. (Home-schooled children are not subject to the vaccination requirements of Health and Safety Code Section 120335.)
Widespread defections would lower average daily attendance in public schools, with a corresponding reduction in school funding, and could prove financially devastating to many private schools.
Most private schools are in alignment with the state when it comes to encouraging parents to vaccinate themselves and their appropriately-aged children against COVID-19. As trusted sources of information, private schools have often been successful in reducing, or eliminating vaccine hesitancy. Many have partnered with local health jurisdictions to conduct informational campaigns and facilitate access to COVID-19 vaccination clinics – some conducted on their own campuses.
None of these efforts can achieve success if reluctant parents withdraw their child(ren) from schools. It is not idle speculation to imagine that the potential elimination of the personal beliefs exemption will produce fewer fully vaccinated school-aged children than might otherwise have been the case.
For all the above reasons, California’s lawmakers would best be advised to leave well enough alone when the Legislature reconvenes in January. But while laying off the matter might make for the most sensible course of action, politicians struggle with the thought of having been elected to do nothing. Will the temptation to meddle win out? Stay tuned!
Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessary represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.