Bill nixing ‘belief’ excuse for school COVID vaccines dies

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California parents should have an easier time getting their school-aged children excused from the state’s upcoming coronavirus vaccine mandate after a state lawmaker announced Thursday he would stop trying to block personal belief exemptions from the new rules.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has said the state will eventually require all California school children to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. He hasn’t done it yet because while federal regulators have authorized the vaccine for use on children in an emergency, they have not yet given it final approval. Once that happens, Newsom says the state’s vaccine mandate will likely take effect the following semester.

State law would allow two exceptions to the coronavirus vaccine: Medical reasons and personal beliefs. A medical reason often requires proof from a doctor. But a personal belief exemption is easier to obtain, requiring a letter from the student or parent stating their objections.

State Sen. Richard Pan, a Democrat from Sacramento who is also a pediatrician, authored a bill in the Legislature earlier this year that would have blocked students from using the personal belief exemption to avoid the coronavirus vaccine.

Thursday, Pan announced he was holding the bill — meaning it will not become law this year. While nearly 75% of California’s population has been vaccinated, rates for children 17 and under are much lower. Just under 34% of children between the ages of 5-11 have received the vaccine, while just over 66.4% of children ages 12-17 have gotten it, according to state data.

“Until children’s access to COVID vaccination is greatly improved, I believe that a state-wide policy to require COVID vaccination in schools is not the immediate priority, although it is an appropriate safety policy for many school districts in communities with good vaccine access,“ Pan said in a news release.

Pan did not say he pulled the bill because of a lack of support. A poll by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, found 64% of registered voters support coronavirus vaccine requirements for schools — including 55% of voters who are the parents of school-aged children. The poll was published in February based on a sampling of 8,937 California registered voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

This is the second vaccine-related bill to fail in the California Legislature this year before it even got to a vote. Last month, Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks withdrew a bill that would have forced all California businesses to require coronavirus vaccines for their employees — a decision she attributed to “a new and welcome chapter in this pandemic, with the virus receding for the moment.”

Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have declined significantly following a winter surge of the omicron variant. State officials have removed most virus restrictions, no longer requiring masks in schools or other public places.

“Definitely a lot of parents are excited that Sen. Pan is pulling this bill. It’s one less thing that they have to worry about,” said Jonathan Zachreson, the parent of three high-school children who founded the advocacy group Reopen California Schools. “The fact is kids ages 5-11 have had access to vaccines for quite some time and their low vaccination rates, I think, is evident of how parents feel about the vaccine.”

Other vaccine-related bills are still alive in the California Legislature, including one that would let school children 12 and older receive the coronavirus vaccine without their parents’ permission. Currently, California requires parental permission for vaccines unless they are specifically to prevent a sexually transmitted disease.

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