California became the first state to issue a vaccine mandate for all educators in public and private schools when Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday ordered teachers and school staff members to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or face weekly testing.
“We think it’ll be well-received to keep our most precious resource healthy and safe,” he said, “and that’s our children.”
The policy applies to staff members serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade and will go into effect Thursday, with an Oct. 15 deadline for full compliance.
Similar mandates are gaining momentum among public and private employers as cases across the United States have jumped with the spread of the delta variant.
In Hawaii, officials announced last week that all state and county employees, including public school teachers, must be vaccinated or be tested weekly. But California’s policy goes a step further by including private schools.
While California officials initially emphasized they were merely encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, the governor announced late last month that the state would require vaccines or testing at least weekly for health care workers and state government employees. Last week, state health officials made the requirement even more stringent, largely removing the testing option for more than 2 million health care workers. But it wasn’t clear then whether California would extend a mandate to hundreds of thousands of educators.
Debate over how to safely reopen schools has been intense and ongoing for months, and decisions over whether to require inoculations have emerged as a recent flash point.
Over the weekend, Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, expressed her strongest support to date for mandatory vaccination of educators, saying she would urge her union’s leadership to reconsider its opposition to vaccine mandates.
“It’s not a new thing to have immunizations in schools,” Weingarten said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And I think that on a personal matter, as a matter of personal conscience, I think that we need to be working with our employers, not opposing them, on vaccine mandates.”
Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said in a statement that the group “doesn’t oppose” the vaccine mandate — but it alone is not enough.
“Vaccines are like seat belts: necessary but not invincible,” she said in a statement Wednesday. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s practice of testing students and staff members weekly, even if they have been vaccinated, “exceeds the requirement announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom today,” the statement said.
For Newsom, getting children back into classrooms is a task with particularly high stakes. Next month, voters will be asked whether they want to recall the governor, and frustration among parents over prolonged school closures has been a significant driver of support for his ouster.
Speaking in Oakland on Wednesday, the governor was flanked by local elected officials who drew an explicit contrast between the pandemic response by Newsom, a Democrat, and states where conservative leaders are seeking to block vaccine mandates and masking requirements.
Schools were closed longer in California than in many other states in large part because of a brutal winter surge, but also because of protracted negotiations with teachers unions, which demanded extensive safety precautions.
On Wednesday, the president of the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest union and an affiliate of the National Education Association, said it supported the vaccine mandate.
“Educators want to be in classrooms with their students, and the best way to make sure that happens is for everyone who is medically eligible to be vaccinated, with robust testing and multitiered safety measures,” CTA President E. Toby Boyd said in a statement.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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