Kern County officials and parents responded strongly — on both sides — to Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement on Friday that students would be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 once the FDA fully approves it for particular age groups.
If enacted as described, the mandate is likely to have a bigger impact on Kern County, where vaccination rates are lower and school districts have not mandated the vaccine, unlike in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
The mandate would take effect the term after full FDA approval comes, which could be July 1 or as soon as Jan. 1. It will be rolled out in two grade spans, 7-12 and K-6.
Parents speak out
Many parents speaking out against mask mandates at school board meetings in Kern County in recent weeks have also spoken out against the vaccine mandates they believed — correctly, it turns out — were coming.
Shawna Flint and Christina Macaluso both have children attending Suburu Elementary School in Lakeside Union School District. They joined together recently to create a Facebook group called "Kern County Parents Against Masks and Vaxs."
Macaluso said they are upset with the prospect of their child being forced to take a vaccine to attend school. They said they're concerned about the long-term effects of the vaccine and would feel more comfortable knowing how it effects children in three to five years or even a decade.
"We just want to know more about the vaccine before they push it on our kids," said Flint. "Parents will have to homeschool or leave the state. A lot of people don’t have this option."
Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, said in a statement that Newsom's mandate was playing to his liberal base in San Francisco. She writes that these critical issues should be "discussed, debated and voted on by the legislature, not unilaterally implemented by the governor through executive order."
"I will continue to oppose vaccine mandates and fully support all people, including parents, who wish to make their own vaccination choices for themselves and their families," she wrote. "The government should respect these private medical decisions without coercion or punitive action."
Jami Anderson pulled her two teens out of schools to enroll them in an online school called Acellus Academy. Last year when the Kern High School District began to offer vaccinations, she became concerned. She said she felt that the mandate announced by the state on Friday was inevitable.
Anderson's daughter had an autoimmune disorder, and doctors prescribed her many expensive, ineffective medicines. The experience left her with little trust in the entire system that regulates the vaccines, and she's against the mandates.
"I am very leery of our government, our FDA, our governor, who I believe is pushing an agenda," she said.
Ashley Kersten, the mother of a 7-year-old with a heart condition, supports the mandate, even though she knows it will face resistance locally. She recently pulled her son out of school to be homeschooled because she was concerned about rising local COVID case rates in schools.
She's not sure if her son will be able to receive the vaccine because of his heart condition, and so she will be reliant on others in his age group receiving a vaccination to be safe.
"If he can't get it, then we are relying on everyone else doing the right thing," she said.
Kersten worries about her older children bringing it home from school, because it's tough for children to isolate.
"The more protected the family unit is, the better for all involved," she said. "Few kids contracting it, fewer cases via household spread."
Rolling it out in schools
Like many counties in the Central Valley, Kern County has low vaccination rates among the K-12 population who are eligible. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, 36.4 percent are fully vaccinated. That's far below the statewide average of 55.1 percent.
Some school districts, including San Francisco Unified, Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified, have recently mandated vaccinations among students who are eligible. In those counties, rates among 12- to 17-year-olds tend to be higher: In San Francisco, it's 77.1 percent. In Alameda County, 70.4 percent. In Los Angeles, 57.9 percent.
Kern County Public Health spokeswoman Michelle Corson said the role of the department is to "serve as a resource to help schools interpret state guidance and are a liaison between local schools and the state on getting the schools' questions answered."
The role of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools will be to help school districts navigate new regulations, but spokesman Robert Meszaros wrote that the mandate is in line with other immunizations required by the department for students.
"KCSOS supports COVID-19 mitigation strategies that are deemed necessary by public health experts," Meszaros wrote. "Once fully approved by the FDA for our youth, the COVID-19 vaccine will join other immunizations — polio, measles and chickenpox, for example — that have been required for decades to help keep our community safe and ultimately lead to fewer disruptions in our schools."
Michael Spickler, president of the Rosedale Union School District board, said it was too soon to say how the district would respond. He is personally strongly against mandating a vaccine for students in the district, and he believes that is in line with how his constituents feel.
"We should not be mandating people use certain drugs," he said.
The Rosedale board previously wrote a letter to Gov. Newsom and other state officials, asking for the state to overturn its universal mask mandate in schools and grant parents "mask choice."
Pam Baugher, the board president of Bakersfield City School District, said she had few details about the new mandate, but she expects the district to comply.
"We have made it a practice in our district to comply with mandates," she said.