California will become the first state in the nation to require all teachers and school staff to get vaccinated or undergo weekly Covid testing, as schools return from summer break amid growing concerns about the highly contagious delta variant, Governor Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday.
The new policy applies to public and private schools and 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. It will also apply to school volunteers.
Newsom announced the new policy at a San Francisco Bay Area school that reopened earlier this week to in-person classes. 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 No 1 anxiety that parents like myself have for young children,” said Newsom, a father of four.
Several large school districts in the state have issued similar requirements in recent days, including San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Long Beach.
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.
While Hawaii governor David Ige announced last week that all education department 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.
Over the past few weeks, Newsom has mandated that all healthcare workers must be fully vaccinated and required that all state employees get vaccinated or choose weekly testing.
For schools, Newsom had already issued a mask mandate that applies to teachers and students but until Wednesday had left the decision of whether to require vaccines up to local districts.
In California, vaccine mandates are perilous for the Democratic governor, who faces a recall election next month fueled in part by anger over his handling of the pandemic. Newsom’s mask mandate for schools has angered some parents and been criticized by Republican candidates vying to replace him.
“Not everybody will be overwhelmed by this but we think it will be well received because it is the right thing to do to keep our most precious resource healthy and safe, our children here in this state,” he said on Wednesday.
As the virus has surged, particularly among children who are too young to be vaccinated, a growing number of teachers unions have eased their opposition to vaccine mandates.
California’s two largest teachers unions – the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers – said they fully supported Newsom’s policy.
CTA president E Toby Boyd said: “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 multi-tiered safety measures.”
Schools are required to be in full compliance with the new policy by 15 October, 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.
Newsom did not rule out expanding the requirement to students after a vaccine is approved for children under 12.
“We’ll consider all options in the future,” he said, in response to a question. “We believe this is a meaningful first step.”