California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday announced the country’s first coronavirus vaccination mandate for schoolchildren, requiring that all elementary through high school students get the shots once vaccination gains final approval from the U.S. government for different age groups.

The government has fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for those 16 and over but only granted an emergency authorization for anyone 12 to 15. Once federal regulators fully approve vaccination for that group, the state will require students in seventh through 12th grades to get vaccinated in both public and private schools. Newsom said he expects that requirement to be in place by July 1.

California will require COVID-19 vaccination for students in kindergarten through sixth grades after it gets final federal approval for children five to 11.

“We want to end this pandemic. We are all exhausted by it,” the Democratic governor told reporters at a San Francisco middle school.

The announcement comes as infections in most of California have dropped markedly in the last month. Newsom has been emboldened after easily defeating a recall effort last month following a campaign where he emphasized his commitment to vaccine mandates to end the pandemic.

In Los Angeles County — the nation’s largest, with more than 10 million residents — just 1.7 per cent of people tested for the virus have it and daily infections are down by half in the last month, when most kids went back to school.

“These numbers are amazingly low given that 3,000-plus schools are now open countywide,” county Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Thursday.

She noted that though the number of outbreaks in schools has increased slightly in recent weeks, the overall number is small and largely related to youth sports.

Some districts have enacted own rules

The state’s vaccine mandate for schoolchildren would take effect the semester after the federal government grants final approval. If it comes in January, then the mandate would take effect in July.

Students would be granted religious and medical exemptions, but the rules for how the state would apply them have not been written yet. Any student who refuses to take the vaccine would be forced to complete an independent study course at home.

Priscilla Farag, 17, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a clinic set up in a parking lot in Orange, Calif., on Aug. 28. The FDA has fully approved the vaccine for those 16 and over but only granted an emergency authorization for anyone 12 to 15. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

Until now, Newsom had left the decision on student vaccine mandates to local school districts, leading to a variety of different orders across some of the state’s largest districts. Five districts in California have imposed their own requirements, including Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school district, which is set to take effect in January.

Newsom’s plan does not override those districts’ plans, saying school districts can “accelerate” the requirements.

Dr. Peter N. Bretan, president of the California Medical Association, said the organization “strongly supports” the governor’s decision.

“This is not a new idea. We already require vaccines against several known deadly diseases before students can enrol in schools,” he said. “The Newsom administration is simply extending existing public health protections to cover this new disease, which has caused so much pain and suffering across our state, our nation and the entire globe over the last 18 months.”

Newsom has made it a point of pride to be the first in the country to issue a variety of pandemic-related school mandates.

In August, California became the first state to require all teachers and staff in K-12 public and private schools to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. Newsom also issued a school mask mandate earlier in the summer for indoor classes that applies to all teachers and students.

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