Student COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate Expected to Include Personal Belief Exemption

On October 1, 2021, Governor Newsom announced his intention to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of vaccinations students must have to attend school in-person. (Press release available here.) While this announcement received much attention, there was little coverage of the Governor’s Office’s acknowledgement that the method the Governor intends to use to add the COVID-19 student vaccination requirement would be legally required to honor both medical and personal belief exemptions.

Health and Safety Code section 120335 establishes a list of diseases for which a student must be immunized if the student will participate in in-person K-12 schooling. Generally, students with a valid medical exemption or an individualized education program (“IEP”) are exempt from these requirements. While it is generally said that California eliminated the personal belief exemption from these vaccination requirements in 2016, the truth is more nuanced.

It is true that, under current law, a student cannot claim a personal belief exemption from vaccination against the ten diseases that the Legislature has added to Health and Safety Code section 120335. However, section 120335 also permits the California Department of Public Health to require student vaccination against any other disease. The key difference is that CDPH may add vaccination requirements “only if exemptions are allowed for both medical reasons and personal beliefs.” (H&S Code § 120338.)

Governor Newsom intends to direct CDPH to mandate the COVID-19 vaccination for K-12 students, meaning it would be subject to a personal belief exemption. California has even not-so-obviously acknowledged this in supplemental material released after the Governor’s announcement. (See the bottom of page 2 in the document available here.)

Mask mandates have become a flashpoint for many local educational agencies. While it seems like the expected COVID-19 student vaccine mandate could be equally controversial, on closer look that may not be the case because it is expected to include a personal belief exemption. The major caveat here, though, is that the Legislature itself could opt to add COVID-19 to Health and Safety Code section 120335, thereby eliminating any personal belief exemption. As with so many things related to COVID-19, we will just have to wait and see. In the meantime, we at Girard, Edwards, Stevens & Tucker LLP are monitoring the situation for you.