SAN FRANCISCO — California will become the first state in the nation to require all teachers and staff in K-12 public and private schools to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday.
The statewide vaccine mandate comes as schools return from summer break amid growing concerns of the highly contagious delta variant.
The new policy will affect the state’s 320,000 public school teachers, more than 250,000 support staff — from cafeteria employees to cleaners — and at least 80,000 private school employees, according to the California Department of Education and labor unions. It will also apply to school volunteers.
Newsom announced the new policy at a San Francisco Bay Area school that has already reopened after summer break. Many California schools are back in session, with others starting in the coming weeks.
“We think this is the right thing to do and we think this is a sustainable way to keeping our schools open and to address the number one anxiety that parents like myself have for young children,” Newsom said.
Several large school districts in the state have issued similar requirements in recent days, including San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and the Long Beach Unified.
California, like the rest of the country, has seen a troubling surge in COVID-19 infections because of the delta variant, which represents the vast majority of new cases. It has affected children more than previous strains of the virus.
In the past few weeks, Newsom has mandated that all health care workers must be fully vaccinated for employment, without an option for regular testing, and required that all state employees get vaccinated or choose weekly testing.
For schools, Newsom issued a mask mandate for indoor classes that applies to teachers and students but until Wednesday had left the decision of whether to require vaccines up to local districts.
California’s two largest teachers unions, both powerful political allies to the governor, said they fully supported Newsom’s policy.
On Sunday, the president of the nation’s second-largest teachers union, Randi Weingarten, said “the circumstances have changed.”
“It weighs really heavily on me that kids under 12 can’t get vaccinated,” said Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
The California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers both cited state and national polling that indicates nearly 90% of educators have been vaccinated but said the rising spread of the delta variant, particularly among children, makes the new policy necessary. Children under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
While Hawaii Gov. David Ige announced last week that all Department of Education staffers would be required to disclose their vaccination status or face weekly testing, California’s order is far more sweeping, applying to all staff who work in both public and private schools in the country’s most populous state.
Vaccine mandates are perilous for Newsom, a Democrat, who faces a recall election next month fueled in part by anger over his handling of the pandemic.
California was the first state to order a pandemic lockdown in March 2020, which shuttered businesses and schools statewide. While many private schools maintained in-person classes, most public schools kept students in distance learning for up to a year. Newsom faced intense political pressure to reopen schools from Republican opponents and supporters who urged him to override powerful labor unions. Many public schools finally reopened last spring, lagging much of the country.
Newsom pushed for a full return to in-person learning this fall. But his mask mandate for schools has angered some parents and been criticized by Republican candidates vying to replace him.
Several of the GOP candidates criticized the new plan Wednesday. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who has encouraged everyone to get vaccinated, said state officials “should not be pushing uniform statewide orders on every school district across the state” but should leave it to local districts.
Details of how the new policy will be enforced were not announced. Labor unions say those logistics still need to be worked out.
Schools are required to be in full compliance with the new policy by Oct. 15, giving schools time to verify vaccination status and have in place weekly testing for unvaccinated staff, said Amelia Matier, a spokeswoman in the governor’s office.