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How a COVID-19 vaccine mandate may affect Petaluma school trends

County health and education officials are gearing up for a K-12 vaccine push, with hopes of overcoming existing hesitancy, as well as backlash to what some parents see as on overreaching government mandate.

California law states that students in a standard K-12 school system are required to get immunized against polio, DTap, Hepatitis B, MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) and chickenpox, and must turn in proof of immunization to their schools before classes start in the fall.

But many parents, citing the limited amount of study on COVID-19 vaccines relative to those other vaccines, which have been in circulation for decades, are expressing newfound hesitancy over vaccine mandates for schools.

“To force parents to vaccinate their children against their will so their children can obtain their state constitutional right to educational equality is a frightening prospective outcome for our society,” said Petaluman Jamie Newbold, whose child attends Petaluma High School.

On Oct. 18, parents and students throughout Sonoma County schools protested the looming mandate, giving voice to frustrations and fears held by as many as 40% of parents, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey.

In a letter addressed to parents, Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steven Herrington said that he understands concerns over the COVID-19 vaccine’s safety, but taking students out of school in protest will only result in a loss of learning opportunity.

“Our district has no control over the proposed mandate, which would treat the COVID-19 vaccine similarly to the 10 vaccines on the state list already required by California law for students attending K-12 schools,” Herrington said.

Herrington added that the mandate would not apply until it reached full approval by the FDA, and exemptions would be available, unless the state legislature votes to add the vaccine to the no exemption list.

With an existing contingent of vaccine skeptics in Sonoma County schools, county health officials have expressed concern about what could be a difficult vaccine fight.

Matt Brown, communications specialist for Sonoma County, said one of the most important functions of the county health department right now is overcoming vaccine hesitancy and increasing the vaccination rate across the entire eligible population.

“We are certainly aware that some school populations have low vaccination rates and that is a concern,” Brown said in an email. “Previous vaccine hesitancy is an indicator of COVID vaccine hesitancy, so we can predict that uptake will be low in populations that have expressed vaccine hesitancy in the past.”

In Petaluma, school vaccination rates have traditionally fallen along the city’s sharp, east-west divide.

In the 2019-20 school year, six Petaluma elementary schools east of Highway 101 all reported that at least 95% of students were up-to-date on all their shots. Miwok Valley Elementary Charter School reported 94%, Harvest Christian school reported 93% and River Montessori Charter School reported 85% full vaccination.

Meanwhile, schools on the west side of town faced lower vaccination rates among students, with only McNear reporting at least 95% full vaccination.

McKinley held the lowest vaccinated rate with only 58%, and Live Oak Charter had the second lowest at 73% of students fully vaccinated.

Live Oak, a Waldorf-inspired charter school housed at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, has long been home to a high percentage of vaccine-hesitant families, but school officials say that’s simply a reflection of the community.

“As a public school, the feelings of parents and students in our school community are a reflection of the diversity of feelings you'd expect to see in our local community,” said Jessica Umphress, chair of the Live Oak Board of Directors.

Umphress also said that the state of the pandemic has not prompted Live Oak to incorporate any new or stricter changes to its overall vaccination policy, but the school does continue to follow any health orders laid out for public schools.

Once the vaccine is fully approved for younger age groups, Sonoma County health officials plan to focus primarily on students living in areas that have been rated lower on the Healthy Places Index, which measures health outcomes based on income, education and environmental impacts.

Officials also plan to partner with schools and pediatricians to get the word out about the vaccines as safe, effective tools to fight coronavirus.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said in a news conference Oct. 8 that Sonoma County will look into hosting vaccination clinics at schools throughout the county once a vaccine is fully approved for children under 12.

“I think that schools are trusted institutions, and I think that is a really good place for us to administer vaccines. We’ll definitely be using schools,” Mase said. “On the other hand, for younger kids, parents might feel more comfortable going to their pediatrician’s office.”

Petaluma City Schools Superintendent Matthew Harris said Casa Grande High School already hosted a vaccination clinic in recent weeks for eligible students.

“Students came out, families came out and got vaccinated. But no one is requiring them to do that at this time,” Harris said in a phone interview. “Similar thing at elementary schools - we’ll have some of our school sites be a location for families who want to get their kids vaccinated at this point.”

As of Monday, about 67.6% of children in the 12-15 age range countywide were either partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Sonoma County Department of Emergency Management web site.

Newsom announced at the beginning of October that a mandate for students and school staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19 could be instated as early as January, making California the first state in the nation to implement such a mandate. If Pfizer for some reason does not fully approve the vaccine for younger children until after Jan. 1, the mandate would most likely go into effect on July 1.

California also continues to maintain the lowest case rate in the country and is one of only two states to have advanced out of the CDC’s ‘high’ COVID-19 transmission category, according to Newsom’s Oct. 1 announcement.

While a mandate would not go into effect until at least the beginning of January, Mase said that vaccine administration could begin for students ages 5-11 as soon as November, as Pfizer is expected to fully approve the vaccine for that age group in the coming weeks.

Newbold is among a group of parents who have had their kids take all required vaccinations before now, but have expressed fresh concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine.

She is steering away from getting a COVID-19 shot right now because there has not yet been years of research behind the vaccine’s effects, she said. In an email to the Argus-Courier, Newbold called a vaccine mandate in the schools a “premature, barbaric exercise of political control.”

She’s not alone.

Casey D’Angelo, vaccine chief for Sonoma County Office of Education, revealed in a Wednesday news conference that a new study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a quarter of parents will not be getting their children vaccinated against COVID-19, while roughly four in 10 parents want to wait to get their kids vaccinated until more extensive research is published.

“Many parents haven’t yet spoken to their pediatricians about these vaccines,” D’Angelo said after noting that pediatricians are one of the most trusted sources of information when it comes to vaccine education.

Dr. Ari Hauptman, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente, said the vaccine data shown over the past year in adults is trustworthy. With that, he addressed those who are worried that it may pose a more dangerous effect for children, saying that the vaccine doses children receive will slightly differ from those in adults.

“The vaccine, when it comes out for ages 5-11, is going to be a smaller dose,” Hauptman said. “The safety on that and the efficacy has shown to be really good.”

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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