Why California Postponed Its School COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate?

California is delaying implementation of a requirement that K-12 students must be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend school, state health officials announced this week as the country struggles with a lagging COVID-19 vaccination rate in children.

According to the new timeline, the California vaccine requirement will not go into effect until at least July 1, 2023, and after full approval of the vaccine for children by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “to ensure sufficient time for successful implementation of new vaccine requirements,” the California Department of Public Health said in a statement Thursday.

The FDA fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for people age 16 and older in August, and the Moderna vaccine in January for people age 18 and older, but has not extended full approval to younger ages. Children 5 years and older are eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 under FDA emergency use authorization; studies have shown that the vaccine is safe and effective for that age group.

In October, California became the first state to announce that once the vaccine receives full FDA approval, children should start taking it to school. “The state already requires students to be vaccinated against viruses that cause measles, mumps and rubella — there’s no reason we shouldn’t be doing the same for COVID-19,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said at the time.

Read more: Schools can help more children get the COVID-19 vaccine. But history has some warnings

Louisiana and Washington, DC, also announced similar mandates and will require the COVID-19 vaccine for face-to-face school attendance in the 2022-23 school year, for those in an age group with full FDA approval. New York and Illinois currently require COVID-19 vaccines for students at public colleges and universities, but not at the K-12 level.

Meanwhile, 18 states have banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students, according to a National Academy for State Health Policy tracker.

California’s official statement on the reasons for the delay downplays every political aspect and focuses entirely on the logistics of the rule. Nevertheless, the debate over vaccine mandates in schools is the latest example of intense polarization over pandemic safety restrictions. While 70% of Democrats are in favor of students being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, only 17% of Republicans are doing so, according to a new poll from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the Associated Press-NORC Center. for Public Affairs Research. Parents of children attending K-12 schools were also less likely than others to support vaccine or mask mandates in school, the poll found.

At the same time, vaccination rates among U.S. children have stalled: So far, only 28% of 5-to-11-year-olds and 58% of 12-to-17-year-olds have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to an analysis by CDC data from the American Academy of Pediatrics. And some public health experts say school vaccine requirements may be the key to changing that.

Denis Nash, an epidemiologist at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, says mandating school vaccines has traditionally been an effective way to increase childhood vaccination rates.

“There is a long precedent for requiring vaccination before school entry,” Nash says. “And it’s very effective at getting childhood vaccination coverage to the required level for things like measles, mumps and rubella.”

Read more: Set the record on COVID-19 vaccines for children

Health officials in Washington state also decided this week not to impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on schools, after the Washington State Board of Health debated the challenges of implementing such a requirement and addressing the hesitant vaccines in the United States. community, while preserving personal learning, the Spokesperson-Review reported.

Even a school vaccine mandate may not be enough to convince the most hesitant of parents. Nearly a quarter of parents said they would “definitely not” have their 12-to-17-year-old vaccinated against COVID-19, and 4% said they would only vaccinate their teen if they had to do it for school, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation published in February. Many who oppose COVID-19 vaccinations for children point out that their age group is less likely to become seriously ill or die from COVID-19, although it does.

“We have to remember that it’s a public health problem, and it’s a public health crisis, and kids don’t exist in a vacuum,” Nash says. “They live in households with adults who are vulnerable for a variety of reasons. And in addition to their own risk, they also contribute to the spread.”

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com.

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